LINDY PARKER HATED the rodeo. Just in general. The sights, the smells, the cloud of testosterone that covered everything.
She hadn’t always hated it, but now it all reminded her of her ex-husband. Damien was so firmly part of that world to her. Whenever she’d gone to rodeo events, it had been for the sole purpose of seeing Damien’s work. To see the results of PR campaigns he’d run and to rub elbows with possible sponsors.
The rest of it didn’t much appeal to her. Dirt and bright lights and overly loud announcers.
But if there was one thing she hated more than the rodeo itself, it was the bull riders.
Cocky. Arrogant. Jerks.
Even her younger brother, Dane, suffered from a bad case of it when he’d been out on the circuit for too long.
But there was no bull rider who irked her quite like Wyatt Dodge. Her dear ex’s favorite rider. A man who’d made Damien tons of money and inflated his ego beyond the telling of it, which, in her humble opinion, had contributed to the flagrant affair her husband had engaged in with a woman who had—at the time—worked at Grassroots Winery, and had been young enough that she still probably remembered how to get to Sesame Street.
Not that it was Wyatt Dodge’s fault. No, Damien was responsible for his own body parts and where they wandered. He was the one who had made vows to her, and even if she did feel like perhaps his prolonged exposure to a pack of manwhores hadn’t helped her marriage, she knew exactly where the fault lay for what had transpired.
She’d caught him kissing an employee of their winery. A much younger employee. Sarabeth, who Lindy had considered a casual friend. A woman she’d invited into her home. A woman she’d paid an hourly wage to. And apparently some of those hours had been spent in bed with Lindy’s husband.
And Lindy could hold a grudge. And had. All the way to court, where she had managed to get full ownership of Damien’s family winery, Grassroots Winery.
Jamison Leighton and his wife had been unsurprisingly angry at the way all that had gone. But, they shouldn’t have left the entire thing to a son who didn’t know how to keep it in his pants. Particularly not a son who had signed a very foolish prenuptial agreement, designed only to protect him from her. Which had meant that all bad behavior stipulated in said agreement had been based on the assumption that she would be the one to do all the very bad things.
And so, she had emerged victorious. She’d given more power back to his sisters, who had not had a chance to claim any part of the property from his parents, but who had stood by her side through the ordeal.
She was close to Sabrina and Bea, in spite of the fact that they were blood-related to Damien. They were the sisters of her heart, and they all worked together even now.
She loved the winery, but unfortunately it was that work that brought her to the Get Out of Dodge ranch now—and was bringing her into contact with a man that she liked less than cooked carrots.
Bull rider. Manwhore. Friend of her ex-husband.
Lindy gritted her teeth and parked her little red car in the gravel lot. She questioned her decision-making sometimes. The fact that she’d come to Wyatt with the idea of the joint barbecue that would hopefully increase business at both Grassroots and Get Out of Dodge. A barbecue that would showcase the grounds of the dude ranch and the wines from Grassroots, and educate people on the different activities available at both locations.
But it made sense. Business sense, anyway. And she’d felt like it would be shortsighted to let her feelings for Wyatt—both her irritation and the strange tightening she felt in her stomach whenever he was around—hinder an important business decision.
Back in the day, Get Out of Dodge had been a thriving dude ranch, bringing people in for miles. But then, Quinn Dodge had lost his wife, and the tragedy had made it difficult for him to continue running the place at that capacity. Since then, the ownership had passed to Quinn’s son, Wyatt, who had retired from the rodeo circuit. He was working on bringing it back to its former glory, modernizing it and creating a place that would cater to what guests wanted now.
Lindy felt like she was very much doing the same with Grassroots. Now that it was in her control she was doing all the expanding she had wanted to do when she and Damien had been married. He had been just happy to live in a big house and let the winery bump along, making income as it had always done.
Not Lindy. Lindy had come from nothing, and she didn’t take a thing for granted.
All that mattered was the future.
And getting through all of it without killing Wyatt.
“Now,” she muttered to herself. “If I were a pigheaded asshole where would I be?”
Seeing as it was lunchtime, he would probably be in the aptly named mess hall.
Lindy had to admit that the ranch was charming. All the little cabins that had been redone over the past few months, as well as the large communal dining hall, filled with picnic bench-style setups and with more seating outside by the river.
There were arenas with fresh dirt, both covered and uncovered, where people could ride, and learn to do some rodeo basics. They did a roping and barrel racing primer, and they were beginning to do trail rides of varying lengths and skill levels.
That was one of the big joint ventures happening between Grassroots and Get Out of Dodge.
They were offering a ride through the winery that took people through the vineyards and ended in a farm-to-table dinner in one of the revamped barns on her property. If you were staying at the ranch, you got a discount. And it was Jamie Dodge who was leading the ride.
It didn’t do them any good to see each other as competitors—they weren’t. He had people coming to stay on his property, and she had booze. That meant they were natural bedfellows.
When it came to business.
Lindy forced a smile as she traipsed into the mess hall. “Good afternoon,” she said, taking a chance that it would be Wyatt who was sitting inside.
She wasn’t disappointed. But, along with Wyatt were his younger brothers Grant and Bennett.
“Good afternoon,” Wyatt returned, leaning back in his chair and tipping his cowboy hat back on his forehead.
“I’m here to discuss brochures,” she said, feeling her lips tighten up as she spoke the words.
It was weird. Standing in front of them in a pencil skirt, wearing high heels and standing like she had a rod bolted into her spine.
She’d trained herself to be this way. She’d grown up in a trailer park with hand-me-down clothes and a mind-set of fending for herself. She might not have learned how to be fancy growing up, but she’d learned to take care of herself.
When she’d met Damien, she’d put her survival skills to good use. He’d paid attention to her, given her the kind of love she’d imagined a girl like her could never earn. In return, she’d figured out how to blend into his world. She’d wanted to be an asset to him, not a disadvantage. So she’d put this sleek, beautiful armor on.
She was still doing it now. But she ran a winery, so honestly, the learned behavior was on theme.
“You could have just sent me an email,” Wyatt said.
“I did,” she responded, through clenched teeth. “I sent two emails. A week ago. You didn’t respond to them.”
“Sorry, I don’t check my email all that often.”
“Then why did you suggest that as a method of communication?”
“Better than any other.”
“I have brochures,” Lindy said, reaching into her purse and pulling out two of the aforementioned items.
They had decided that they were going to do two-sided brochures that would be placed in the cabins at Get Out of Dodge and in the tasting rooms for Grassroots. But, she needed Wyatt to approve them before she had them printed.
“Lindy, I really don’t care about the font or whatever is on a brochure.”
“Well, I need you to care.”
Grant, who she had always liked, extended his hand. “I’ll have a look,” he said.
She shot Wyatt a triumphant glare and walked across the room, placing one in Grant’s hand. “That’s option one,” she said.
“Let me see,” Bennett said.
She had always liked Bennett too.
Bennett was the youngest of the Dodge brothers, newly engaged, and a veterinarian, well respected in the community of Gold Valley.
Grant worked on the ranch. A widower, he was talked about often in hushed tones the moment he left the room. But then, his romance with his late wife had made literal headlines at the time. A teenager marrying his dying high school sweetheart. It made for a great story. Though, it had been something of a crushing reality. And one that seemed to follow him wherever he went.
She had an inkling of how that felt. Not the grief part. But the being a topic of conversation part.
She was the divorced one. People whispered about her behind their hands, talked about what a shame it was that husband of hers had turned out to be a no-account. Or they talked about how that had been her plan all along. A gold digger. Nothing but trailer trash who had married above herself and hadn’t been able to keep the man happy. Who had taken him for all he had, and had ended up with money she hadn’t earned.
The honorable Leighton family should never have been parted from their family property. Obviously. Regardless of the fact that a judge had disagreed with that assessment.
Yes, she knew what it was like to be whispered about.
Sadly, she could find no such connection, empathy or respect for Wyatt.
But then, in fairness, he didn’t try to earn it.
Finally, Wyatt stood up, slowly. And as he did, her mouth went dry. He was tall. Very, very tall. The tallest of all of the brothers, which was saying something, as they were all over six feet. She was used to large, strapping men. Hell, her brother was one.
But Wyatt Dodge was not her brother. He was infuriating. He was obnoxious. He was friends with Damien.
He was definitely not her brother.
And not ugly. Regrettably.
Not even close.
Wyatt Dodge was one of the most magnetic men she had ever met.
Grant and Bennett were handsome like movie stars. Grant bearded, Bennett clean-shaven. Symmetrical. Brown eyes and square jaws and all of that. Wyatt was rugged. He had a scar running through his chin that she was sure he had gotten doing something stupid, because bull riders never did much of anything smart.
He always had just a little bit of stubble on that firm jaw of his, and it looked like it would be prickly if she touched it. His boots were always dusty, and his jeans usually had holes. Unless he was dressed up, and then he put on some slightly nicer jeans and boots that she suspected were made from snake. She wished she didn’t know that. She wished that she hadn’t retained those details.
She knew that he had more than one black cowboy hat, though you could be forgiven for thinking they were all the same. And that he had one that was tan, which usually went with his nicer clothes.
She also had the first moment they’d met branded into her memory.
She knew way too much about him, having seen him from afar over the years when Damien was doing PR for the circuit and she was still his wife.
And then, she had relearned a lot of it over these past couple of months while the two of them had been forging something of a business relationship.
None of it made her feel at ease around him. She was decidedly easeless in his presence, and she didn’t know what to do about it.
He reached out and took both brochures from his brothers, his large, weathered hands making the brochures look...well, wrong.
Like maybe he needed information carved on a stump of wood with some kind of sharp, rudimentary object.
Damien had been something of a rhinestone cowboy. He dressed the part, but that was so he fit into his surroundings. He didn’t do ranch work.
Wyatt was as real as it got.
And it shouldn’t matter to her at all. Only in the sense that it was probably good for business. And the more business that came out to the ranch, the more traffic it would drive to Grassroots.
Plus, they had a deal. Get Out of Dodge was going to serve Grassroots wine exclusively, and that would draw people in to buy more as well.
He turned the pamphlets over, examining them, and for some reason, Lindy felt that examination in a close personal way. She shifted awkwardly, attempting to ignore the strange, hollow feeling between her thighs.
“It all looks good to me, Melinda,” he said, using her full name, which no one ever did. He only knew it because they had gone out drinking once after a big win for Wyatt had resulted in a good endorsement deal that Damien had helped Wyatt net. And the subject of middle names had come up, which had brought up the subject of her full name.
And now, years on, he sometimes used it to irritate the hell out of her.
“Thank you,” she said, keeping everything smooth and serene on the surface, while internally she was flipping him both middle fingers.
That was what she did now. It was how she played this game. She had perfected her polished exterior to the point that no one knew there was a little grit left beneath.
She did. Because it was the grit that kept her going.
“Why don’t we walk outside a bit?” he asked, his eyes connecting with hers and lighting her insides on fire.
“I want to show you some things,” he continued.
She squared her shoulders and followed after Wyatt, giving Grant and Bennett a small wave before heading outside.
“Something we need to do in person?”
“Yes. Otherwise I would have emailed you. I have your address.” His handsome face was a study in sincerity and she wanted to punch it.
She bit the inside of her cheek. “Right. Anyway.”
“I just wanted to talk a little bit about the Fourth of July shindig that we’re having.”
“Right. The shindig.” Grassroots would be providing wine, and they would also be serving Donnelly cheese. Plus, they would be touting the virtues of both Grassroots and Get Out of Dodge. It was an important event, one that they were heavily advertising for in surrounding communities.
“I was thinking we would do some rodeo demonstrations,” he said. “Over there in the main arena.” He gestured broadly across the way at a grand, covered area, with two sets of bleachers on either side. The bleachers were new.
It looked like Wyatt figured that if he wasn’t traveling with the rodeo he might as well bring it back here.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yes. I was wondering if Dane was going to be around?”
“I doubt it. Anyway, it’s not like you’re outfitted to do a bull ride here.” There were bleachers, but they were missing the heavy gates and fencing needed to keep people safe if they were going to bring those animals out.
“Not bulls,” he confirmed. “I figured we would do some roping. Not going to go crazy. You’re right. We don’t have the facility for it. But it would be damned cool if we did.”
“I’m not going to have my brother get himself injured doing a stunt to benefit your ranch, Dodge.”
“Your brother rides often enough. He can get injured anytime.”
“Right.” She pursed her lips. “But competing. Not messing around here.” Dane’s ability to earn a living was everything to him. His way of escaping their upbringing. He didn’t need to put it at risk messing around here. “Anyway. I’m pretty sure that Dane is solidly booked in competition for the next few months.”
“That’s a shame. I like him.”
Heavily implied in that sentence was the fact that he did not like her. But, that wasn’t her problem. It also wasn’t fair. Dane was different. His life was different. He got rewarded for being a good old boy. For being a reckless redneck.
She got no such rewards from life. She had to prove that she was capable. She was strong and smart. That she belonged in the world she’d married into, and divorced out of.
Dane got to be fun and dangerous and get rewarded for it. But then, that was her experience of all these rodeo idiots. Their life was a big party. They didn’t do responsible things like keep to their commitments or honor their vows. No. And her husband had jumped right into that.
But, that was beside the point.
“Sorry. He didn’t quit.”
“I retired,” he pointed out. “I didn’t quit. Midthirties is a rough time to still be flinging your body around like that. Other guys do it, but...not me. I’m done.” A smile tipped the corner of his mouth upward, and she noticed some lines crease his skin right by his eyes.
He had aged since they’d first met all those years ago but that didn’t make him less attractive. Instead, those weathered signs of aging, of years lived, only made him more attractive in a strange way. She had to wonder if it was some kind of weird female survival instinct. That this man who had taken all these risks was here, had made it well into his thirties in spite of those risks, was sending signals to her body that he was a good provider, or something.
But her body was terrible at correctly identifying men’s true natures. Even if it wasn’t, she didn’t want to know Wyatt or his...nature. So, she wasn’t even going to ponder it.
“Well. Whatever. So you’re thinking roping events?” She pushed the conversation back on track.
“Yes. I got all the approvals from insurance. As long as we don’t have any guests participating, or anything like that, we are cleared for it.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“I was also thinking Jamie could lead a ride during the barbecue.”
She nodded. “Sounds good to me.”
“Will it be all right with you if we take the group over to the vineyard?”
“Should be fine.”
Their eyes caught for a moment, and for some reason it felt significant. More so than the moment before. He was not the kind of man she normally liked.
Granted, she’d been with one man. And in the end she hadn’t liked him very much at all. But still.
He nodded, then smiled. Slow and lazy. It licked through her like fire and she did her very best to ignore it. “Good.”
She cleared her throat. “Good.”
“So, just the brochures? Were there any emails that you needed me to read?”
She curled her hands into fists, irritation coursing through her, saving her from the heat. “Can’t you just...check your email?”
“Can’t you just...tell me what you need?” He smiled. Enigmatic. Infuriating.
“There’s nothing, but if I need anything else I’ll be sure to send you an email. And maybe I’ll add a follow-up phone call.”
“Sounds good. Could you arrange for 6:00 a.m.? A wake-up call? That would be pretty fancy. Haven’t had that since I was on the circuit.”
“You stayed at motels that gave you wake-up calls when you were riding on the circuit?”
“No. The women that spent the night usually woke me up early when they were sneaking out, though.”
He was such a jackass.
“Right. Well. I will not be giving you a wake-up call. Of any variety.” Her lips twitched, and heat flooded her cheeks.
She turned away, her heart hammering hard. She had the inescapable feeling that she had made a deal with the devil in forging an alliance with Wyatt Dodge. But the devil was infinitely preferable to her ex-husband, and the devil currently had what she needed.
And so, a deal with the devil it was.
* * *
WYATT WATCHED LINDY’S figure as she retreated, the wiggle in her hips transmitting her irritation while also sending some signals to his body that he could do without, thanks.
He let out the breath that he felt like he had been holding for the past fifteen minutes, feeling the tension ease out of his body, down along his spine. That woman got under his skin, no denying it.
Under normal circumstances he wouldn’t deny it. He would have just had her by now. But there were complications to that. Big ones. Like the fact that she was the ex-wife of a man he had once considered a good friend.
Like the fact that she hated him.
Oh, and the fact that he had wanted her from the moment he’d met her, when she had still been hitched to the aforementioned friend.
The fact that he hadn’t made a move on her was a relief only in that it indicated he had learned to think with something other than his cock since he was sixteen years old.
Lindy Parker was a particular kind of thorn in his flesh.
He remembered the moment he’d met her with a distressing amount of clarity. He had been in a bar after one of the events, and she had walked in looking prim and uncertain, her hands clasped in front of her, holding on to her handbag, her blond hair swirling around her as she took stock of the rabble and ruffians in the room.
And he had...he had felt the floor of that bar fall out from underneath his feet.
He had wanted her, immediately. Viscerally. It had been an instantaneous and deep desire unlike anything he had ever felt before.
Then, he had seen the diamond ring sparkling on her left hand. It had only loomed larger in his vision as she had walked over to where he was sitting. He’d had all those seconds, those long moments of watching her make her way across the room to decide he didn’t give a damn who had given her that ring or what it meant. He wanted her. And if she was going to let him have her...well, then he wasn’t going to waste a thought on the poor bastard who’d given her the diamond.
He’d thought that right up until she’d walked up and kissed his friend right on the mouth.
She was Damien’s wife. Of course.
Because the first woman to make him feel like he couldn’t breathe in longer than he could remember was obviously going to be married to a friend of his.
Even if she hadn’t been married to Damien...they were not meant to be. She had been unfriendly to him from the beginning. It wasn’t even her divorce from Damien that had triggered the unfriendliness.
He still wanted her. Dammit.
And he didn’t do that stuff. He didn’t want and not have. Sex, as far as he was concerned was a recreational activity. People didn’t need to make such a big deal out of it. But, he also preferred to like the women he banged. And he preferred it if they didn’t want to decapitate him.
Lindy fell into that category.
Yeah, that was complicated, but it had a little bit more to do with her not liking him rather than him being concerned about preserving a relationship with Damien.
As far as he was concerned Damien was a dickhead. Cheating on Lindy had been an asshole thing to do. There was no defending it. Wyatt wouldn’t even try. Some men shouldn’t get married. Wyatt was one of them. But, he hadn’t gotten married. Damien had. And he had owed it to his wife to be faithful to her. The damned man hadn’t even tried as far as Wyatt could tell.
It had all come out later, when Damien had drunkenly slurred over a beer about the end of his marriage that he had cheated on Lindy multiple times over the years. Being on the road with all that temptation around was too much for him, he’d said. When the buckle bunnies couldn’t find a cowboy to get laid with they would always take him.
And it was all Wyatt could do not to ask him if he was screwed in the head. Because what the hell man would want another woman when he had that one in his bed? Wyatt sure as hell wouldn’t.
Of course, he had never tried monogamy, so he supposed he couldn’t actually judge. But he did.
Still, the fact that he didn’t exactly want his friend to know that he had illicit fantasies about the other guy’s wife was one reason he had held back on lecturing him too much. The other being that he just wasn’t the right man for that job.
A shiftless manslut who had never had a committed relationship in his life was the last person on earth who should hand out lectures on marriage.
“She does not like you.”
Wyatt turned around and saw his brother Grant standing there, looking amused with the situation.
He supposed he should be happy to see Grant looking amused at all, since his brother rarely did. But, he wasn’t. Not when it was at his expense.
Wyatt had never claimed not to be a selfish bastard.
“She doesn’t,” Wyatt agreed.
“And you want her.”
“She’s a shrew,” Wyatt said, by way of answer, crossing his arms, watching as that little red car of hers drove away.
“A hot one,” Grant pointed out.
“You sleep with her then. I don’t want to have to dig her fingernails out from under my skin after.”
“It’s my understanding you end up with fingernails embedded in your skin when it goes well,” Grant said, his tone dry.
“Unless she does it because she wants to mortally wound you.”
“From where I’m at right now, I’m not sure I see a drawback either way.”
“Go.” Wyatt made a shooing motion with his hand. “Get some. Refresh your memory.”
Grant lifted a brow, the lines on his forehead deepening. “Not likely.”
Wyatt locked eyes with his brother. “Get out of town. Find a woman who doesn’t know you and your entire life story.”
“You know,” Grant said. “I tried that once. She remembered me. From the news.”
His brother’s marriage had ended up famous.
An eighteen-year-old who married his high school sweetheart even knowing she wouldn’t live long had been a tragic and wonderful gesture, as far as the world was concerned.
As far as poor Grant was concerned, it had just been life and love. In the end, he had suffered a hell of a lot. But that’s what he was famous for. Being true-blue to a woman who was long gone.
No one had asked if he wanted to get famous, of course. It had been one of the last things Grant wanted. Second only to his wife dying.
Which had thrown Grant right back into the headlines. Wyatt was sure that made hooking up...complicated.
Wyatt Dodge did not like complicated. It was just one of the many reasons that he was not going to follow the road his attraction to Lindy wanted to take him down. Nope. And hell no.
Anyway, getting things off the ground with Get Out of Dodge was too important.
If he succeeded, then no one would ever have to know the reason why.
And that was the ideal situation.
“I appreciate you being here,” Wyatt said. “I hope you know that.”
“I do. But, it’s not like I had anything truly amazing that I was leaving behind. A job at the power company for little more than a decade...sure. The retirement was going to be good...” Grant shook his head. “How long can you possibly live for the future? I mean, socking away money, punching a time card all to invest in years you might never even see? What the hell is the point of that? Can you answer me that, Wyatt?”
Wyatt rubbed his chin. “I’ve been riding bulls for the last...fifteen years? I am not the person to ask about thinking ahead. If I had been thinking ahead I never would have done that.”
His spine sure would’ve thanked him, and unlike so many others, he had never even sustained a serious injury. He was lucky. Lucky as hell. The guys that ended up getting seriously trampled often never walked in a straight line again. Wyatt had gotten out more or less intact. Just a couple of scars. Even still, at thirty-five his body had taken the kind of beating most guys his age couldn’t imagine.
“I’m glad to be here,” he said. “That’s what I meant by the speech. That’s all.”
“I’m glad, too,” Wyatt responded.
Grant turned and walked away, leaving Wyatt standing there, looking around the property. It was all coming together nicely. The landscape in front of the main house, the gravel paths that led between the buildings, raked clean and neat.
Wyatt hadn’t taken anything this seriously for the past twenty years.
The cabins had been restored and redecorated, and he was actively working on finding a cook who could provide something more than basic food.
He had to reach his goal of getting the ranch to full occupancy by the end of the summer, and he had to reach total financial solvency in the following year. Otherwise, he was going to fail at Quinn Dodge’s ultimatum.
And that meant his father was going to sell the ranch.
That was the thing his siblings didn’t know. Wyatt wasn’t the owner of the property.
It was still Quinn’s. And unless Wyatt succeeded in a very short amount of time, it wasn’t going to be in the Dodge family anymore. Instead, Get Out of Dodge would be nothing more than a stack of cash divided between the siblings, and Wyatt couldn’t allow that.
He knew that his father expected him to screw up.
Wyatt was determined that he wouldn’t.
There was no other option.
Of all the reasons not to sleep with Lindy Parker, that was the best one.
He didn’t need her as a distraction, he didn’t need her as a friend and he sure as hell didn’t need her as a lover. He needed her as an ally.
Because if he didn’t have that, he might lose.
And if there was one thing Wyatt Dodge did not do, it was lose.