Read Nothing Sweeter (Sweet on a Cowboy) Online

Authors: Laura Drake

Tags: #Fiction / Romance - Contemporary, #Fiction / Romance - Western, #Fiction / Contemporary Women

Nothing Sweeter (Sweet on a Cowboy)

BOOK: Nothing Sweeter (Sweet on a Cowboy)
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To the two constant men in my life—Gary and Al—the stars I steer by

Acknowledgments

I’m so grateful to my sisters, Fae Rowen, Jenny Hansen, and Sharla Rae, who wouldn’t let me start in the wrong place. To Tessa Dare, Susan Squires, Jacqueline Diamond, Charlotte Carter, and all the wonderful published authors at the Orange County Chapter of Romance Writers of America (OCCRWA) who give their time and patience to reach a hand back. Thanks to Donna Hopson, my lay-editor.

To the amazing Margie Lawson—thanks for the masters immersion class, the sparkle factor, and the friendship.

Thanks to Nalini Akolekar of Spencerhill Associates for taking a chance, and to my ever-patient editor, Latoya Smith.

Thanks to the bull-riding insiders who helped a city girl get it right: Clint Wade of Exclusive Genetics, for his time and knowledge of bull husbandry, and Cindy Rosser, who gave me insight into the life of a stock contractor. To Jay McNeilly of the Orange County Sheriff Department for insight into prison life, and John Girard for the great cop stories!

And to Jane and Kayla, the founding members of the Laura Drake fan club–before there was reason for one.

CHAPTER

1

H
er “new” life was going be so much better than the last one. Aubrey Madison would make sure of that.

She savored the sight of a solitary saguaro standing sentinel on the flat Arizona landscape. She savored the red-tipped ocotillo branches that waved in the stiff breeze of the Jeep’s passing. She even savored the chilled air that swirled in, raising the hair on her body in an exquisite shiver.

God, it’s good to be out of prison
.

Her face felt odd. Until she realized she was smiling.

Glancing at the gas gauge, she vowed to stop soon, only long enough to get gas and use the restroom. She had to keep putting on distance.

What if it’s not possible to outrun your own conscience?

The pull of the road in front of her was as strong as the push from the vision in the rearview mirror.

A weather-beaten Sinclair sign in the distance made up her mind. She took the exit leading to a deserted corrugated building that might have once been painted white.

Pulling to the pump, she killed the ignition and sat a moment, listening to the
tick, tick, tick
of the cooling engine and the wind keening through the power lines. She stepped out, closing her denim jacket against the wind’s probing fingers.

A bell over the station door jangled as she opened it, and a black-haired Native-American teen glanced up from behind the register.

Aubrey pulled bills from the pocket of her jeans. “I need to fill it up. Where’s the restroom?”

His expression didn’t change as his stare crawled over her throat. She fisted her hands to keep them still. When he finally pointed to a dark corner, she almost ran to it.

After solving the most urgent matter, she washed her hands. Her gaze locked on the black-flecked mirror. The ropy scar twisted from behind her ear to the bow of her collarbone, looking like something out of a slasher movie. Shiny. Raw. Angry. She jerked her gaze away, turned the water on full force in the sink, and tried once again to wash away the shame.

In her mind, she saw the sign she’d woken up to in the prison infirmary, hanging on the wall across from her bed.

If you’re going through hell, keep going
. Winston Churchill

In spite of her mantra, the walls closed in, as they always did. Yanking the door open, she fought to keep from running until she was outdoors, the wind kicking around her once more.

She reached for the gas nozzle, the tightness in her chest easing. When the Feds released her from eight months of
perdition, her mother begged her to stay in Phoenix. But Aubrey couldn’t get a deep breath there. The suburban ranch house crowded her with memories and worried eyes. This morning she’d packed and escaped.

Holding the lever in chilled hands, waiting for the tank to fill, she turned her back to the wind.
Alone
. She pulled the luxury of the empty landscape into her solitary-starved soul and lifted her face to the sun’s tentative warmth, smiling once more. Nothing was sweeter than freedom.

Max Jameson twisted the cowboy hat in his hands and lowered his eyes to the body in the gray satin-lined casket. His father’s broad shoulders brushed silk on both sides. His face looked unfamiliar, mostly because it was relaxed. But there was no mistaking the strong jaw and high cheekbones. Max saw them in the mirror every morning.

Just like you to duck out when the going gets tough, old man
. His mouth twisted as his father’s familiar chuckle echoed in Max’s mind.
Leave me holding a sack of rattlesnakes. Lotta help you are.

No response, which, on several levels, was probably a good thing.

Max scanned the empty viewing room. He dreaded the remainder of the day: the funeral, the cemetery, the reception at the ranch.
“Your dad is reunited with your mother after thirty-five years.”
The thought of solicitous friends spouting platitudes was enough to make him bolt for the barn, saddle his horse, and get the hell out of his own life.

He surveyed his father’s waxen features.
Yeah, and don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same, you old boot.

“Maxie?”

The singsong cadence in that single word snatched him back to when the man in the casket was a mountain, and a little kid with worshipful eyes dogged Max’s footsteps. Only one person on earth dared to call him that.

Strap yourself in, Daddy. It’s gonna get bumpy.
He turned to face Wyatt.

His younger brother stopped a few steps short of the casket, his gaze dropping to his father. A worried frown marred the angelic face from Max’s childhood. Wyatt looked familiar, but different, too. Soft cheeks had hardened to a man’s, and his golden locks were gone, shorn short.

Well, the prodigal son returns. No points for bravery maybe, but—

“Did he suffer, Max?” Wyatt’s voice wavered, his gaze locked on his father’s face.

“Nope. One minute he’s pounding in a post for the new fence line. The next, he’s on the ground. Gone.”

Wyatt’s head snapped up, his eyes wide. “Jesus, Max. Do you have to be so cold-blooded?”

So much for the new and improved Max he’d committed to becoming just this morning while lying in bed, probing the scabbed-over edges of the hole in his life. “Kinder and gentler” melted before the blowtorch that was his life lately. “Just telling you what happened. Sugarcoating won’t make it any prettier.”

A hurting smile twisted Wyatt’s mouth. “You sound like him.”

Max knew he hadn’t meant the words as a compliment. “Let’s grab a cup of coffee before the vultures show up.” He settled his Sunday Stetson on his head. “You and
I have a bucket of trouble, little brother. And trouble don’t wait.”

Three weeks later

Crisp, alpine air trumped the heat of the sun. Aubrey steered the top-down Jeep with her knee and swiped wind-whipped hair out of her mouth. The snow-capped Rockies whispered of winter, but brave weeds flowered at the side of the highway. With no set destination the past three weeks, the road had pulled her north. She’d slept in generic hotels and eaten at mom-and-pop diners. The familiar stiffness in her core leached out in the sameness of the days and the anonymity of her role as generic traveler.

A cautious optimism replaced it, along with a niggling of road weariness. When had she last felt excited about the future? College?

A quick look in the rearview mirror told her that her scrunchie had failed. Curly chestnut hair floated around her pale, too-thin face. That and the oversized cheap sunglasses made her look like a So-Cal heiress just out of rehab.

Except for the scar, of course.

She pulled the Dodgers cap from behind the seat and snugged it over the riot to solve two problems—she didn’t need more freckles added to her collection.

A city limits sign announced her approach to Steamboat Springs. Her empty stomach growled demands.

Old-fashioned brick-fronted buildings lined the typical Western main street, foreground to a striking snowcapped mountain backdrop. She snagged a parking spot in front of a trendy bar and grill and climbed from the car, her joints creaking.

Noticing a stand of free local papers on the sidewalk, she grabbed one. She tugged open the heavy wooden door of the restaurant to lunch babble and a welcome blast of warm air. High ceilings and a long old-fashioned mahogany bar with a brass foot rail dominated the room. Midafternoon diners occupied the soda fountain–style chairs set around small wooden tables. The smell of onions and grilling beef told her she’d gotten lucky.

She chose a tall seat at the empty bar. The bartender appeared from a back room, a moonlighting college student, unless she missed her guess. “Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t realize you’d come in. What can I get you?” He wiped his hands on a damp bar rag.

Ugh. My first “ma’am.”
Aubrey smoothed her hands over her waist to be sure middle-age spread hadn’t begun since she’d gotten dressed that morning.
Everybody looks old to a baby like that.

She ordered, then opened the newspaper. Designed as bait for cruising tourists, she’d found these local Realtor rags a good source for a quick area overview of the local geography, economy, and demographics.

An earsplitting shriek raised the hair on Aubrey’s neck and arms. Her muscles jerked taut and she froze, head scrunched into her shoulders. The scream trailed off to a happy laugh. She spun in her seat.

A young couple sat at a small round table, attention focused on the baby in a high chair between them. The little boy was rapt, watching a small stuffed elephant his father held, his Cupid’s-bow mouth open in anticipation. The man shook the toy and the ears flopped. He swooped down and burrowed it into his son’s neck. The baby threw his head back and shrieked again, the
pitch rising to dog-whistle range before trailing off in a delighted giggle.

Aubrey felt her mouth stretch in a dumb grin. The peals of laughter were more than carefree; they were total ignorance of care. How long had it been since she’d heard happiness like that? Heard it, hell, had she ever
felt
it? Nobody knew how to party like a baby.

The mother glanced at Aubrey before putting her hand on her husband’s arm. “I’m sorry. We forget that what we think is cute can be irritating to others.”

A band loosened in Aubrey’s chest, releasing a small moth flutter of happiness. “Anyone that finds a baby laugh irritating is dead inside.” She smiled at the mother. “Thank you for sharing your joy.”

Lighter, she turned back to her research. Turning the page to a marketplace section, she read of lost dogs, goats for sale, litters of kittens, and a burro free to a good home. Aubrey noticed quite a few ranches for sale. She turned to the brief help-wanted section.

W
ANTED:
F
ULL TIME STABLEHAND.

R
OOM &
B
OARD INCLUDED.
A
PPLY TO
H
IGH
H
EATHER
R
ANCH.

That might be worth looking into. It would be fun to work with horses again. And God knows her new life could use some fun.

The band around her chest ratcheted as the craving for open air danced along her nerves.
I’ve got to find a way to stop this running.
She glanced out the window to where her Jeep waited, imagining spending the rest of her life as a ghost, driving across the country, never leaving a shadow of an impression on the places she left. Almost as if she never existed at all. A goose-on-a-grave shiver
started between her shoulder blades and shot through her body.

Could she stop? Aubrey did a gut check, but her gut just repeated the demand for food. It didn’t really matter if she could—she had to.

If I don’t stop now, I never will
.

She glanced at her faded UCLA T-shirt and sweatpants. Not quite interview couture. The college kid returned with a still-sizzling chunk of beef smothered in cheese. “Here you go ma’am. Anything else I can get you?”

“This looks great, thanks.” Her mouth watered. “Can you tell me—is there a Western-wear store in town?” The kid filled her in as she reveled in her food, taking large bites of yet another meal that didn’t come from a prison kitchen.

At the Western Emporium a half hour later, Aubrey stood before a mirror, a shirt in either hand, considering. She’d found the perfect pair of skinny jeans, and the paddock-style lace-up boots she’d tried on went well with them. Good for work, but stylish too.

The tailored shirt on the right was dressy, polished black cotton with pearl snap buttons and white embroidered roses on the yoke. The one in her left was blue windowpane plaid, more a workday shirt. If the High Heather was a dressage barn, she’d know what to buy, but from the merchandise here, odds were against that.

She’d already decided to buy them both, but which one for an interview? The business rule in her previous life dictated dressing one notch above the position. A booster of adrenaline dumped into her bloodstream. This interview would set a whole tone for her new life. In the past week, the shining promise of the open road had soured.
It now felt tainted, dark, and off somehow, like a whiff of carrion.

She
had
to get this job.

She changed into the fancy shirt and after a glance-in-the-mirror reminder, selected a package of bandanas on her way to the counter. She handed over her credit card and watched as the clerk ran it through the old-fashioned imprint machine.

She scribbled,
Aubrey Mad—

Crap.
Her fingers spasmed. Heat shot up her neck, making the scar throb. She scratched out her last name and wrote “Tanner” over the bad beginning, then pushed the receipt across the counter. Banks never looked at those things anyway.

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