Wynonna drew huge gulps of the cool air as she pushed through the screen door. The house was stifling hot and crammed wall-to-wall with people. Her dress was sticking to her sweaty back, and if she didn’t get these high heels off soon, she’d scream. But in honor of her father, she’d donned a dress, hose and heels. She’d even tamed her wild red curls into a neat chignon on the back of her head.
It was the least she could do for her father’s funeral.
She launched off the front porch and hit the yard with long strides. Tears had been knotted in her throat and clustered in her eyes for hours, but she hadn’t let a single one fall, not even when they’d thrown handfuls of dirt onto her father’s casket. Standing between her brothers, seeing her momma’s face ravaged with grief… How had she managed not to break?
The dam was creaking, about to let loose. She gasped and took off running with no memory of crossing the grass yard. The big barn loomed up, and she ducked inside. Enveloped by the comforts of hay and horse, she stumbled to a stop.
She shoved her palms off the closest wall and let her cries rise up. The sound scared her, and Wynonna was no sissy. She was an Oklahoma state barrel racing champion, a tough-as-nails ranch girl who’d grown up with five brothers. Yet she was sobbing like a baby.
Her tears poured down her face like hot lava, and she didn’t bother to wipe them away. If she let them come now, she could be strong for her momma when she went back inside.
Thinking of her mother brought images of her, leaning heavily on the oldest of the bunch, Buck. His eyes dark with pain as he held their mother upright. She’d just lost the love of her life, and he’d died too young. Nobody had expected that heart attack to hit out of nowhere.
Wynonna’s sobs grew harsher, the sound making the horses stomp and shift uneasily against their stalls. She pressed her forehead to the rough wood wall and shook with her cries.
“Hey.” Big warm hands closed around her upper arms. She didn’t need to turn to know who was here to comfort her. She’d know Mav’s scent anywhere. The ranch foreman had a manly smell that had been titillating her senses since she was fifteen. Not to mention that dark, brooding look he always wore.
He spun her to face him and brought his muscled arms around her. She sucked in sharply as her cheek met stiff, unfamiliar cotton. His white dress shirt looked so odd on him. At the funeral, she’d met his gaze and he’d given her a nod that had helped her get through the toughest part of the service. When her brothers had gotten up one by one and spoke about their father… Well, she couldn’t think on it too long.
Another sob burst from her, and she attempted to choke it back.
“Shhh.” Mav flattened his palm on her spine and rubbed up and down in soothing strokes. She focused on the solid man before her and the rustling of her mare in the other stall. Pandora had listened to her cry and worn plenty of Wynonna’s tears on her coat over the years when Wynonna was honing her racing skills. But this was a different kind of cry.
Mav tightened his arms around her, and she issued a soft gasp. It felt as if he’d circled her body twice with his long reach, but that wasn’t possible.
Her nose was running, and she was a God-awful mess. She sniffed hard, and suddenly Mav produced a clean hanky from the pocket of his black dress pants. He’d abandoned his suit jacket, which was good. She didn’t know if she could stand him not being any less like the Mav she knew.
“Let it out, honey. I’ve got you.” His deep voice rumbled under her ear. Her tears fell faster.
“I can’t believe he’s…” Her breath did that horrible hitching thing that happened when you cried too hard.
“I know. It’s going to be hard for a while, but you’re surrounded by people who love you so much.”
She buried her face closer to his chest and shook as more sobs overcame her. He said soft, incoherent things that eventually soothed her. Or maybe her well of tears had run dry.
Her chest heaved with a violent hiccup, and Mav loosened his hold on her enough to look down into her face. She couldn’t meet his gaze. When she’d stood in the church to sing the final hymn, she’d caught him looking at her, concern etched on his rugged features. The same expression he wore now.
He slowly raised his hands to her cheeks and gently brushed her tears away with the backs of his knuckles. She kept her gaze riveted on his shirt buttons.
“Here, I have an extra hanky.” He produced another and held it to her nose. “Blow.”
Like a child, she did, which annoyed her, but she felt better for a clear head. She took the hanky from him and sneaked a look up at his face. His green eyes smoldered down at her and she swore he’d sprouted a shadow of a beard since she’d seen him in church.
Mav was manly enough to command his beard to grow, and he’d probably done it just to torment her at the most inopportune time. She looked over his dark hat, tipped back enough to see his eyes and the crease between his brows, and then down to his crisp white collar. Against his tanned neck, it looked sexy as hell. She’d spent her youth comparing her boyfriends to Mav, and none of them compared. She’d even upgraded to older boys and had been secretly dating local college guys since the age of sixteen. Now at nineteen, she was more than eager to have a real man.
Mav stared down at her. Were his lips as hard as they looked?
“I can’t stand to see you hurting, honey.” His low tone seemed to vibrate to the tips of her toes mashed into her black heels.
A shiver ran through her.
“Oh hon.” He wrapped his arms around her and yanked her against his chest again. She put her arms around his waist and squeezed him back. He swayed a bit with her, back and forth, his boots scuffing on the barn floor.
“I should go back in.”
“You should.” He didn’t let her go. “I saw you slip out, but if you want time alone, I understand.”
“I just needed out of there. The barn’s better.”
He nodded as if he understood, which he probably did. He’d once told her they were alike, both a little wild around the edges and civilized only when necessary. She liked living up to that, but not today.
“You know, I’ve watched you grow up. Your dad always had a soft spot for you.”
Tears flooded again, and one leaked from the corner of her eye. She snorted and brushed it away.
“We fought. The last words I spoke to him were in anger.”
“That doesn’t matter, honey bunch. He knew how much you loved him.”
She tilted her face up to look at him. Their gazes clashed, and a dark spark made Wynonna’s heart jerk against her ribs. Her lips fell open and a soft sound escaped, unlike anything she’d made before. The noise rang with desperation… and desire.
Mav lowered his head. Brushed his lips over her temple. Her breath caught, and her mind blanked to everything but the man holding her. The man who took care of their animals, their land, who had been a trusted friend to her father, treated her momma with respect and joked with her brothers.
He ran his lips over the crest of her cheek. She went dead still, too aware of a sweet ache between her thighs. Her pulse hammered in her ears. Could he feel her heart pounding through her chest? She was afraid of moving the slightest bit for fear she’d break this trance he was in.
Her mind whirled, and she realized she needed to breathe. But drinking in the barn air scented with manly Mav only shot her desire higher.
He trailed his lips over her cheekbone down to her jaw. And oh yeah, those lips were softer than they looked. A helluva lot.
Small pants escaped her. Each press of his lips to her skin sent tingles of electricity through her extremities. But when he thumbed her chin up and looked deep into her eyes, she felt as if the lightning rods on the barn had failed. Surely a bolt had just slammed through her body and pinned her to the floor.
Mav claimed her in a tender melding of lips. She moaned, and he answered with a rough noise that sounded like tearing leather. Lawdy, was he really touching her this way?
She didn’t dare move for fear he’d step back and leave her burning, but all she wanted to do was hurl her arms around his neck and drag him down hard, harder. God, she wanted to feel his strong body pressing down on her.
In the stalls surrounding them, the horses provided their own music to the best kiss of her life—and it was one of the most chaste ones she’d ever experienced. Even her boyfriend in the seventh grade had come at her and jammed his tongue into her throat. But Mav, he was so different. He was a real man, a cowboy. She didn’t know his real age, but he was older than Buck. And the fine creases around his eyes when he squinted into the sun told her he was no sapling.
She clung to the oak man before her as he held the kiss. Unmoving.
Suddenly the sound of tires on gravel filtered through her hazy senses. Mav jerked away. Feeling the loss of his body heat, a chill ran through her. She wrapped her arms around herself.
“I’m sorry, Wyn.” His voice sounded as harsh as it did after he spent all day barking orders while they rounded up cattle. His green eyes seemed darker, full of a new light of sadness.
Her brow pinched, and she gave a light shake of her head. “Don’t be sorry.”
“You’d best get back to the house now.”
She drew up straight and wrapped her arms tighter around her middle. He was sending her away? Surely, she hadn’t been the only one who’d felt those sparks between them? The sweetness… those feelings couldn’t be faked.
Maybe they’d go inside together and finish out this horrible day—the day she’d buried her father—together. “Are you coming?” she asked.
He shook his head once, a man of few words or actions but endless deeds and ages of wisdom. “Horses are restless. I’m going to set them free.”
Why did she feel like he was saying something entirely different?
“Okay. See you inside after.”
He kept his head bowed, but on the way past, she caught his gaze. What she saw sent ice through her, and her tears rose up for a new reason. He was sending her away from him—he regretted that kiss.
He twisted away, breaking their stare, and she went back across the yard to the house. The front porch was full of people talking about her father, but she hardly heard a word as she went straight to her bedroom and slammed the door. At least she didn’t have to share a room like her brothers did. She could hide from the world and conceal the tears racking her all over again.
This time there was no beautiful god-like cowboy to hold her and wipe her cheeks. As far as she knew, he never came back inside the house.
* * * * *
“Engaged?” Momma’s eyes were popping out all over the fat diamond on Wynonna’s finger. Her mom gripped Wynonna’s hand to hold it in place as her brothers and sisters-in-law crowded close like a Little League team around the player who’d made the winning catch.
And she had.
“To whom?” Momma blinked up at her. Wynonna had outstripped her years ago in height—she took after her father and brothers and had topped six feet in her late teens.
“To Austin Alexander.”
Everyone stared at her. She looked from face to face but saw no recognition in their features.
“Who?” West asked.
Irritation rolled through Wynonna. “The writer I’ve been seeing.” When nobody responded, she added, “I met him in Phoenix and he interviewed us. Remember?”
With the Rope ‘n Ride show, they were always in the spotlight. Cameras were thrust in their faces so often that none of them bothered noticing anymore. Even the smallest Calhoun kids ignored the equipment by now.
She looked to West for help. Her brother widened his eyes and backed up as if to say she was on her own.
“He’s as tall as I am with blond hair kind of swooped over.” She made a hand motion to show them, but they still gaped at her as though she’d sprouted a second head of red hair.
“Well, where is this fiancé? Why isn’t he here so we can congratulate him?” her momma asked.
“Oh. He’s on a big story and had to leave last-minute. It’s a documentary about the journey of politics in our country.”
“I thought you said he was a writer.”
“Yes, he’s working on a nonfiction accounting of our past presidents and their achievements. He’s also a reporter. He does all sorts of things.” She thought of the night he’d proposed, how the lights in the airport had somehow seemed romantic and the world had seemed to slow around them as he got down on one knee and put the ring on her finger.
She felt that same bubble of excitement now. She’d been smitten with Austin since he’d flirted during their interview. They’d gone out for drinks, then dinner. And he hadn’t asked her to come back to his room, which was just about the most gentlemanly thing she’d ever known. Of course, she’d rewarded him for that behavior a week later when he’d followed her to Prescott, Arizona to watch her compete.
“Where’s he from?” her mother asked. Oh no, she was giving Wynonna that look. The are-you-happy-is-this-the-right-decision-young-lady look.
“He’s from Boston.”
West took a step back from the group as if the word had slapped him. “Boston?”
“What’s wrong with Boston?” The kitchen start to close in on her. Suddenly, she needed the outdoors.
“He’s not a country boy?” Momma asked.
“No. It’s nice being with an intelligent man for once, instead of dim-witted rodeo guys who beat their faces off the backs of bulls. No offense, Ryder.”
Her brother leaned against the counter, arms folded, looking as if he’d like to hogtie her and leave her in the manure pile. He tipped his hat and drawled, “None taken, sis.”
“When can we meet him? We’ll have a big family dinner.” Her momma looked around the space as if wondering where they’d fit another person, when there were already twenty people packed into the room. Between the Calhouns and the film crew, they were short on floor space.
“I’m not sure when he’ll be done with this project, but I’ll let you know.” On impulse, she leaned in and kissed her mother on the cheek. The apple of her cheekbone bunched under Wynonna’s lips as she smiled. Then they looked into each other’s eyes and embraced.
“Oh my baby’s getting married! I can’t believe you’re all grown up.” As her mother scanned the family, her eyes swam with happy tears. Wynonna released the last of the air she’d been holding in her lungs in the event she needed to push out a string of defensive words.
“How long have you known this guy?” Buck asked.
Maybe she’d need those words, after all. Wynonna rolled her eyes at her annoying big brother. Since their dad had passed away a few years back, he’d started acting like a stodgy old fart, always getting in her business and trying to “guide” her in life.
“Long enough,” she said breezily.
“Longer than the porn king?”
“Shut it.” Heat flooded her face, and her mouth suddenly felt sticky at the reminder of the huge error she’d made with that asshole. At first, he’d seemed so right for her, an older, more mature guy who knew how to treat a woman. Then he’d asked her to star in a series of porn films for his production company. In the end, her brothers had kicked his ass and poor West had taken the flack with the police. Luckily, he’d gotten out of the mess unscathed.
“If you’re done interrogatin’ me, I’ve got some work to do. I must be the only one.” She threw Buck an eat-that glare and pushed by the clot of family and out the door.
* * * * *
Mav turned his head, following the sound of the voices as they crossed the yard to the barn. He’d been around the Calhoun boys long enough to know the nuances in their tones, when they were happy and when they weren’t. Right now, they were definitely disgruntled.
“What’s under her skin?” Ryder grumbled. “She drops this bomb on us then gets pissed off when we don’t just accept it.”
They rounded the barn and Mav looked up. “Mornin’. Wyn on the war path again?” he asked.
Buck grunted. “She’s engaged.”
Mav’s mind went dead still like it did before an ambush in Bosnia. He stared at her brother. “She is?”
Mav’s stomach hollowed. Jesus. Buck could have punched him and it would have felt like the beat of a butterfly’s wing in comparison. It took ages for his mouth to work. “Do you know the guy?”
“Met him once, I guess. Don’t remember.”
At Buck’s side, Ryder twisted his lips. “I do. Pretty boy with blond hair like this.” He made a swooping motion that made Buck chuckle, but Mav wasn’t laughing.
Fuck no. Pretty boy?
“Cocksure little punk. Remember he asked Lane if sex with an older gal was better and Lane looked like he was gonna split the asshole’s lip?” Ryder went on.
Buck screwed up his face in thought and then his expression cleared. “Shit, I do remember. Tell me you’re kidding. That idiot?”
“More of Wyn’s bad choices for us to deal with.” West added as he joined the group. He clapped his gloved hands together. “We workin’ on that new enclosure?”
“Yup.” Mav’s throat felt as though he’d swallowed tacks. Wynonna was getting married? After all these years of watching her grow up, Mav’s protective instincts were dialed to asshole alert. First had been that crooked little jerk from down the road, a farm boy who liked to get into his father’s weed. One day he’d shown up with dilated pupils, high as a kite, looking for Wynonna. And Mav had ordered the kid off the Calhoun ranch and to never come back.
Then there was the TV producer for the Rope ‘n Ride show, the first one. A guy far too old for Wyn, an arrogant fuck who’d thought himself good enough to come into Mav’s territory and demand he move this and that for better shots of the ranch. His refusal to take orders from the city slicker had only been the first time they’d butted heads.
Finally, when Mav had found Wynonna—strong, beautiful and hard-ass Wynonna—crying in the barn over this man, Mav had taken matters into his hands. He’d driven the motherfucker off with a few threats and as far as he knew, she’d never heard from him again.
And don’t get him started about that porn producer.
Now there was another jackass to get rid of, by the sounds of it.
“Mav, you ridin’ with us?” Buck broke into his thoughts, hitching a thumb toward the running pickup.
“Think I’ll saddle up.” He needed the time to clear his head, and the breeze on his face would keep him from going in the house, grabbing that crazy redhead and demanding to know what the hell she was thinking.
Buck hopped behind the wheel, and the other brothers filled the seats. A cameraman jumped into the bed. Mav strode into the corral and saddled his horse. In seconds they were galloping across the field.
The Calhoun place was in the best shape ever, thanks to the extra cash coming in from their show. And it seemed like every Calhoun was on his rodeo game. Some of the winnings from last season had been going to an auction fund. When it reached a certain amount, they brothers planned to buy more cattle.
Which wasn’t a bad idea. They had to think ahead. Between their women and children, the ranch had a lot of mouths to feed now. And how long would the show contracts hold out? Next year, the TV trend toward reality shows could change and the Calhouns would be out in the cold.
None of them had gone to college, although Wynonna had tossed around the idea for a while. Mav had always suspected her interest had more to do with the dipshit she’d been sleeping with at the time, but in the end, she’d stayed true to herself. She was a country girl who knew horses, and she was going to train them.
Her own mare was the best behaved on the ranch, next to his mount, of course. People from all over would happily pay thousands for her to train their horses for barrel racing. All those rich daddies with princess daughters, and Wynonna was a role model now. Her face was everywhere.
Even in Mav’s thoughts late at night when he lay alone in his room behind the barn.
Dammit, he couldn’t go there.
He raised his head and scanned the landscape, automatically looking for calves separated from the herd. Every animal seemed to be in its place, which was almost too bad because he needed a distraction from Wynonna.
Though her early dates had all been bad boys, now they were a string of older men who’d set Mav’s teeth on edge. He’d wanted to put that producer in a chokehold more than once just for touching her. And that porn guy… When Mav had heard of it from her brothers, he hadn’t seen anything but a red haze for weeks.
At least this guy she was hitching herself to was her age. Wasn’t he? Shit, Mav had no idea. He’d have to Google the guy later. Her brothers couldn’t control her any more than her father had been able to, but Mav felt an obligation to make sure she was safe.
Which was partly why he kept his distance from her. Years before, after that slip he’d made in the barn after her dad’s funeral, he’d suffered for it. Ignoring her after that had been nearly impossible, when she put her hot little ass in his path every time he stepped outside. In the end, his age had given him more patience and she’d given up on him.
It had nearly killed him not to stand and talk horses with her. They had so many of the same ideas on the subject. And one time he’d even watched her struggle to shoe an ornery mare on her own, but if he’d gotten within arm’s distance of her, he would have pushed up her tiny tank top and shimmied down her jeans.
Fuck, why now? He’d done well keeping her from his thoughts lately. Buried her deep inside, more like. Where she needs to stay.
She got his blood pumping fast. No denying that. Those legs that had been coltish in her youth had turned into lean, sexy, muscled limbs. She almost never wore skirts, but that day in the barn after the funeral, the dress she’d been wearing had been part of the reason why he’d given into his urges and kissed her.
As he guided his horse toward the enclosure they were in the process of building, his mental eye skimmed Wynonna’s curves, up to her full breasts. When she wore a tank top, he could hardly draw breath around her. But even when she was all covered up in a western shirt, his libido was bucking like a bronc. Her buttons had a tendency to strain across her breasts—
He cut off his thoughts. But dammit if he didn’t think of that thick mass of red hair that was her crowning glory. Or the freckles. Sweet Lord, those freckles on the bridge of her nose that would wrinkle in disgust faster than you could blink.
He couldn’t help it—he smiled. She was such a smart-ass, and her mouth got her in trouble pretty often. Sometimes Mav found himself biting his cheek to keep from grinning at the trouble she dished out.
He shielded his eyes from the sun and looked back toward the main buildings.
“What ya lookin’ at, Mav?” Ryder asked.
“Just habit, I guess.” Who was he kidding? He’d been hoping for a glimpse of Wynonna. This was all he’d allow himself. From this distance, he could look at her for as long as he wanted without anybody picking up on it.
How many times had he watched her from afar as she rode recklessly across the fields? One of her favorite moves was to stand in the saddle, and he’d long stopped worrying she’d fall.
“Let’s get to work,” he said to cover the moment and to sever his mind from the tormenting woman. She didn’t need a man like him, not with his history.
Ridge showed up late to the construction party on two-seater ATV with a cameraman.
Buck looked to him. “Thought you were fixing to repair Mom’s dishwasher.”
“Couldn’t stick around the house any longer. The women are all discussin’ Wynonna’s wedding plans.”
Mav grunted. Too easily he could picture her in a long, fitted gown, wildflowers stuck haphazardly between her curls. But the man she danced with wasn’t some weenie from the northeast.
“I hope she doesn’t jump into something. With her track record, she needs to have a lonnnnng engagement.” Ridge grabbed his tools from the back of the ATV while the cameraman circled the group, setting up for the best footage.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Buck said. “Maybe I should talk to her.”
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” Mav said without thinking. He stayed out of Calhoun business.
Buck looked up at him. “You don’t think she’ll listen?”
The brothers and Mav all stared at him and burst out laughing. “Think of who you’re talking about, Buck. Your sister’s the stubbornest woman alive.”
“She comes by it honest,” West said.
“Yeah, Dad always found pride in saying she was just as ornery as he was. It’s why they butted heads so much.” Buck kicked at a clump of dirt.
“That’s right.” Mav set his horse free to roam while they worked. It walked a few paces off, tail flicking as he nosed the high grasses.
“Maybe you could talk to her, Mav.”
He jerked his head around to Buck. “What?”
“She won’t listen to family, but she respects your word. She might listen to you.”
If he sat her down and told her she was marrying the wrong man for her, he’d damn well be telling her who was right.
He shook his head and raised his hands as if to ward off a lion attack. Which he would be if he stepped foot near Wynonna with those words on his lips. “Nope. You’ve got the wrong guy.”
“We can’t let her figure it out on her own. Think of the misery she’d put us through if she finds out after she’s had three kids to him and he’s cheating on her while on the road ‘writing’ or whatever he does.” Ryder lifted a plank and set a nail in the end with a few taps of his hammer. The noise echoed across the land.
Shit, could Mav sit by and watch the woman he cared for fuck up her life that way? Could he trust himself to even talk to her without shoving her against the nearest wall and claiming her wide, sweet lips?
If he did, he wouldn’t stop at one kiss. And therein lay the problem—he was no good for her. Too old, too fucked up from his tour in the service. Hell, he couldn’t predict when his PTSD would flare up, and then would he leave her high and dry like his father had left his mom?
Mav took a plank from the pile but set his nail with a whack that drove it straight through the board.
“Save your strength, man,” Ryder joked.
But Mav had a hard time keeping light of heart. No future, no past, just now. His motto had never seemed so important to remember as right then.