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A sexy cowboy. Some racy photos. And an accidental hook up—or three—with his best friend’s sister.

Chapter 1

 

He who has the best sperm wins the race.

Or so it seems when you’re trying to breed future winners of the rodeo circuit. Not just any sperm will do. It has to be the sperm of a winning quarter horse. A champion.

Am I thankful the same rules don’t apply to me when it comes to getting laid?

You’d better believe it.

I lean against the wooden fence, forearms folded on the top railing, and watch the three colts chase each other across the pasture. My cowboy hat blocks the late afternoon sun.

Gravel crunches behind me, and I turn to find my two brothers approaching. Behind them are Sophie and Aubrey. Sophie is our brilliant horse trainer. The woman Jake gets a hard-on over—but you didn’t hear that from me.

Aubrey is our equally brilliant vet.

Who I grew up with.

She’s like a sister to me and my brothers.

The two women are chatting and not paying attention to Jake and Noah. Jake says something to Noah, and my youngest brother laughs. Whatever Noah says in response has Jake laughing even harder.

“What’s up?” I ask once they’re only a few feet away.

“Nothing,” Noah says, still chuckling.

Jake’s barely contained smile betrays the laughter still simmering under the surface. He parks himself next to me, gaze on the pasture. Noah props his forearms against the fence, sandwiching me between him and Jake.

Those two are keeping something from me. Possibly something to do with today and their plans for my birthday. A secret that’s hopefully nothing like last year’s…with the stripper. Named Roxy Bliss.

Formerly known as Robert.

But whatever it is, it’s nothing compared to the secret that has poked, poked, poked at me for the past twelve years. A secret that has me lusting over my best friend’s sister.

“So, what do you think, TJ?” Jake gestures to the colts. “Are we looking at future winners?” His all-business tone is echoed in the words. The tone he always uses when he talks about the ranch.

“With Thor as their father, how could they not be winners?” I say.

Fortunately for us, my horse isn’t the type to settle down with one mare. When it comes to females, he’s a player like the three of us. And the more mares he knocks up, the greater the chance we’ll end up with future champions.

Jake folds his arms across the top railing. The girls stand on the other side of him and look out at the pasture. He tap-tap-taps the fingers of one hand against the wood. “You think they’ll put the ranch on the map?”

“It’s already on the map,” Noah says. “Just the wrong map when it comes to us being a horse ranch.”

“Well, this is what we get for switching from cattle to horses.” Jakes uses his I-knew-this-was-a-bad-idea tone. The same tone I’ve heard for the past two years, ever since our grandfather died and we inherited the ranch.

“But you have to admit that while Granddad might have lived and breathed and dreamed cattle,” I say, “cows were never our passion.”

“True—except cattle brought in the money.” Jake’s words hit straight to the core. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. This is not the first or second or tenth time that he’s told us switching to horses was a bad idea.

I push back from the fence. “Give it time, Jake. Thor proved himself as a rodeo champion. We can’t do any better than using him to build our reputation.”

“Plus he’s healthy,” Aubrey says. “He’s in prime reproductive health.”

“Do you usually bring guys to their knees with all that sexy talk?” Noah says with a laugh, next to me.

She grins at him. “Don’t you know it?”

“Hope you’re right.” Jake’s tone warns me I’m in for a lifetime of “I told you so” if the ranch doesn’t make money.

But he has a point. The ranch is my life. If it goes down, Jake, Noah, and I have no backup plans for our futures. The ranch is our past and our present and our till-death-do-us-part.

Or rather, I don’t have a backup plan. Jake has a business degree to fall back on.

Noah peers at the blue sky above us. “You think Grandpa’s looking down on us, grumbling that we’re dumbasses for tossing away all his years of hard work?” He salutes the sky like it’s an army general. “You’re welcome, old man.”

“He’s probably thinking he’s the dumbass for leaving the ranch to the three of us. He could have just left it to Jake and me to manage while you were off partying.”

“At least I was enjoying myself. You turned thirty today, and you’re still miserable.” Noah’s smirk contains a better-you-than-me attitude and I-can’t-believe-you’re-still-alive awe.

“I’m not miserable.”

“Well, you’re not happy.”

Before I can deny the truth in Noah’s words, I catch Jake’s expression. The expression claiming Noah has a point. “Sure, I am.” I shift my mouth into a two-parts-genuine, one-part-whatever smile. “I’m very happy. Why wouldn’t I be happy?”

“You haven’t been truly happy since you fucked up your knee,” Jake says.

Both Sophie and Aubrey nod in agreement. Traitors.

I scowl at my brothers. “You two are beginning to sound like a couple of old women. I don’t need to be smiling and laughing and breaking out in song to be happy.”

“When exactly was the last time you broke out in song?” Noah doesn’t snort a laugh but it’s there in his tone.

“What? Am I supposed to spontaneously start dancing too?”

Jake lets out short, loud laugh. “Now that I’d like to see.”

“So, Mr. Happy, are we still on for tonight?” Noah slaps my back. “Now that you’re an old man, you think you’ll be able to stay awake long enough to hit the bar?”

“I’m not old.”

At what is no doubt a pout in my tone, both men crack up, laughing loud enough to startle a herd of cattle to stampede.

Sophie walks over to me, her long, blonde ponytail shining in the summer sun. She settles her arm on my shoulders. “Don’t worry about TJ. If he gets too tired, I’ll tuck him in bed.”

That gets me a fuck-you glare out of Jake. I return it with a What-can-you-do? shrug. Sophie is oblivious to our silent communication.

Her hands are covering her face.

“Oh, God,” she groans. “That didn’t come out right.”

Aubrey and Noah laugh.

“I know what you meant,” I tell her—mostly so Jake doesn’t clobber me, even though he knows I’m not interested in her.

She’s the kind of woman who you imagine one day having a husband and kids and a white picket fence.

That life’s not for me.

And it’s not for Jake either.

Hence his hard-on problem.

“Good,” Noah says, “then you have no excuse. We’ll see you tonight.” He starts to walk away but then adds over his shoulder, “Eight o’clock. Don’t be late.”

“What the hell are you guys planning for tonight?” I ask Jake.

He laughs, the sound far from reassuring. “Guess you’ll find out tonight.” He moves away from the fence and heads toward the stable.

“You know I don’t like surprises, right?” I call after him.

“Yeah, might have heard that somewhere.” He doesn’t even bother to look over his shoulder when he says it.

“Just tell me Roxy Bliss won’t be there tonight,” I call back.

 

***

I climb the bungalow’s recently painted porch steps and knock on the front door. From the other side of it, Killer lets out a high-pitched, come-play-with-me bark.

A moment later the door opens, and a bundle of white fuzz comes barreling out. Killer jumps up, parking his paws against my legs, yapping for me to pet him. I oblige the furry little beast’s request.

The name Killer? You can thank Noah for that. We bought Grandma Meg the dog for Christmas a few years ago to keep her company. Noah thought it was the perfectly ironic name for something that was quite the opposite.

But when Grandma Meg tried to give the dog a new name, he gave her a haughty bark, making it clear that there was only one name to which he would respond.

A bright smile slides onto Grandma Meg’s face. Her long, gray hair is pulled back into a loose, puffy bun. Stray strands frame her weathered but still-beautiful face. She’s wearing loose leggings and an oversized light-blue T-shirt with a cartoon Jersey cow on the front.

Grandma Meg is not really my grandmother, but she might as well be. My brothers and I have known her forever.

I straighten, remove my cowboy hat, and enter the house. The smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies greets me.

I’ve barely crossed the threshold before she throws her arms around me in a massive hug, catching me off guard. I stumble back a step.

“Happy birthday, TJ. I can’t believe you’re now thirty.” She releases me. “Goodness. It feels like just yesterday when you were a little hell-raiser in diapers.”

I chuckle, mostly because it’s the same speech she gave Austin—her grandson, my best friend—last month when he turned thirty. “I can guarantee it’s been a long while since I was in diapers.”

My gaze shifts to the wall where the photo of Violet still hangs. My best friend’s sister. Aubrey’s best friend. It was taken over a year ago—ten years after she moved away to attend college.

Memories of when we were growing up replay in my head. Hanging out with her and Austin. Biking together. Swimming in the river. Riding horses. Back when I thought Violet was the coolest girl around. Back before I became aware of her as something more than Austin’s little sister.

I’ve seen that photo so many times, and the reaction is always the same.

My insides twist into a knot—the kind you get when you miss someone.

“She’s doing really well,” Grandma Meg says. “She’s still working for a fancy marketing and publicity firm in LA that specializes in the entertainment industry. She’s also been doing some work as a professional photographer.”

I smile because even back in high school, Violet’s photos were amazing. “I’m not surprised she’s doing well. She’s worked hard for both.”

Grandma Meg’s face glows like a peacock on parade. Her smile widens. “I’ve got a gift Bert left explicit instructions to give you on your thirtieth birthday. But first I have something in the kitchen for you.”

The kitchen is bright and cozy, with the white cabinets and the white walls and the white-tiled floor that Austin and I installed last year. The curtains, towels, and seat cushions are a chaos of yellows and blues and florals. It’s nothing like the kitchen at the ranch she and Bert lived on when he was still alive, but the place fits Grandma Meg perfectly.

On the table is a big, squishy package. My stomach slouches in my gut, much like it did when I was a kid. Every Christmas. When I got a gift from Grandma Meg.

She hands me the present. “Here, I made it for you.”

After saying a quick prayer for the gift not to be as bad as the one from last Christmas, I rip off the wrapping paper and remove the blue cable-knit sweater. Relief rushes through my lungs. The last sweater she knitted for me had a picture of Thor—my horse, not the god—on the front. Decorated with Christmas ornaments.

I still wear it with pride…whenever Grandma Meg is around.

“This looks great. Thanks.” I hug her because I am genuinely happy with the gift, even if it is the middle of June.

I release her and my gaze lands on the brochure next to the plate of cookies. Frowning, I reach for it. “Skydiving lessons?”

“Yes. Tilly, Gertrude, and I decided now is a good time to work on our bucket lists.”

“Bucket list?” I echo, even though I know what the hell it is. “Why does an eighty-year-old woman’s bucket list include skydiving lessons? And more importantly, does Austin know about it?”

I already know the answer. Do you really think the brochure would be on the table if he did? He would’ve sped back to his sheriff’s office—lights flashing, siren blaring—and shredded it. Several times.

“No, he doesn’t. And you, TJ Christopher Daniels, won’t be telling him either.” She says it in her I-mean-business voice. The same voice she used when I was ten years old, and she caught me smoking.

That was the last time I put a cigarette in my mouth.

Granddad made sure of that.

“Yes, ma’am.” I might have said it, but I sure as hell didn’t mean it. “But you aren’t seriously thinking of taking skydiving lessons, are you?”

She lets out a heavy sigh. “Apparently not. The place has an age restriction, and the girls and I exceed it. Just by a little, mind you. So don’t you go thinking that I’m ready to be put out to pasture with the old crows.”

A laugh erupts from deep in my chest. “I wouldn’t even think about it.”

“And if they didn’t have the age restriction”—she wags her finger under my nose—“you can guarantee the girls and I would’ve done it, no matter what my grandson said.”

“Even though you could end up breaking every single bone—or worse yet, die?”

“But at least I’d go out with a bang. Well, more likely a splat.” She claps her hands, the sound more like a loud slap than a splat.

“It doesn’t matter if you go out with a bang or a splat or any other way. Neither Austin nor Violet will appreciate you dying before you’re supposed to.”

“Ha! Maybe our maker has plans for me to go out in style. Have you even thought of that? And as for my grandson, he’s just too protective for his own good…or in this case, for my own good. I can see why he’s that way with his sister. But even then, he has to remember Violet’s a grown woman. A grown woman with a—” Her words come to an abrupt halt, and her mouth forms an O.

“With a what?”

She waves her hand, as if swatting a fly with the back of it, and shuffles toward the doorway. “Never mind that. Bert’s gift is collecting dust as we speak.”

I grab a cookie from the plate and follow her from the kitchen. She walks down the hallway with me trailing behind, chomping on the sweet treat.

My gaze flicks to the wall covered with photos. Violet’s photos. The photos she took, not the ones she’s in. They’re action shots taken a few years ago, just before the accident that ended my rodeo career. I’m riding Thor as he gallops toward the calf I’m about to lasso.

Pretending I don’t notice the photo, I enter the guest room. I miss competing almost as much as I miss Violet. It’s hard seeing those photos without feeling like regret has kicked me in the nuts. With spurs on.

The same piles of unopened boxes that have been here since Grandma Meg moved into the cottage five years ago still crowd the room. There’s also a twin bed with floral bedding and a few antique pieces from the old ranch house.

Grinning her mother-bear smile, she points to a medium-sized cardboard box on the floor. “It’s in there.”

I kneel, my bad knee telling me to go to hell. Nothing new there. It’s been that way since the accident. It doesn’t always act up, but after a hard day of work, it’s as grumpy as a bull in a hailstorm.

I place the sweater on the floor, open the flaps, and peer inside. The pain in my knee is instantly forgotten.

No.

Fucking.

Way.

“Is this for real?” I remove the old Thor Marvel comics one by one from the box. Yes, I’m a Norse mythology freak—and these comics are responsible for that.

“Bert knew how much you loved them,” Grandma Meg says.

“But why wait until I’m thirty?”

“No idea. Even after being married to him for forty-six years, I didn’t always know what he was thinking. But I do know he was hoping that one day you’d share these comics with your own kids.”

My laugh comes out as a God-you’re-hilarious snort, and I straighten to my feet. “He definitely got that wrong. There won’t be any kids in my future.”

Her eyes go wide, crinkles forming across her brow. It’s the early warning signal that I’m in for a lecture: the sweet-grandma-guilt-you-up-the-ass lecture. “How can you say that?”

Has she asked her own grandson that question lately? He and I are both in the We’re-never-going-to-be-fathers club—new members always welcome.

“Because I’m not interested in settling down.”

“And why not? You’re young and virile. What woman wouldn’t want you?”

“I have a busy ranch to manage. I don’t have time for a girlfriend.” I kneel again next to the box of comics, set the sweater on top of it, and stand, hoisting it all in my arms. I head for the bedroom door.

“Why?” Grandma Meg says from behind me as I walk down the hallway. “Because it didn’t work out with She Who Shall Not Be Named?”

I can’t help but grin. It’s a very apt name. My ex-girlfriend and Harry Potter’s nemesis have a lot in common. Although in Katherine’s case, the last I heard, she’s married to some tech whiz in Silicon Valley.

Killer barks.

“See—even Killer thinks my single status is a good idea.” I pause at the front door.

The little white fluff ball barks again.

“No, what Killer said is, you should sing at the senior center during our next bingo night.”

“I don’t sing,” I deadpan.

Grandma Meg rolls her eyes like she’s a teenager instead of a senior citizen. “Remember, I’ve known you since you were in diapers, TJ. I know you sing. You have a beautiful singing voice.”

“That still doesn’t mean I sing.” At least not in public.

“That’s too bad. Violet always loved it when you sang.”

I ignore her—while battling the urge to look at Violet’s photo.

Too bad my heart and cock rule my brain at the most inopportune times.

Traitors.


© Stina Lindenblatt 2018


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