Authors: Lori Wilde
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
The Cowboy and the Princess
You might be a princess if . . . you have to ditch your bodyguards to get some “me” time.
rady Talmadge had five unbreakable rules for leading an uncomplicated life.
One stormy June night in Texas, he broke them all. Starting with rule number five.
Never pick up a hitchhiker.
He’d honed the rules through twenty-nine years of trial and error, most of them compiled while towing his vagabond horse trailer from town to town, and as long as he stuck to his edicts, life flowed as smooth and simple as the Brazos River ambling to the Gulf.
In regard to the hitchhiker rule, he learned it the hard way. He had a permanent whup-notch on the back of his skull from a pistol-whipping meted out by a wiry, goat-faced thief who’d taken him for thirteen hundred dollars, his favorite belt buckle, and a pair of ostrich skin cowboy boots. Never mind the four-day hospital stay that drained his savings account to zero because he’d had no health insurance.
On the satellite radio, the weatherman warned of the fierce line of unrelenting storms moving up from Hurricane Betsy. “It’s gonna be a wet night, folks. Find someplace warm and dry to hole up with someone you love.”
Brady took the exit ramp off Interstate 30, heading for the parking lot of Toad’s Big Rig Truck Stop on the outskirts of Dallas. His headlights caught a lone figure huddled on the road shoulder, thumb outstretched. Automatically, his hand went to his occipital bone.
Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. Rain slashed. The hitchhiker shivered violently.
Sorry about your luck, fella.
The eighteen-wheeler in front of Brady splashed a deluge of water over the skinny stranger. Small, vulnerable. Been there. Done that. Lived through it. The fella raised his face and in a flash of fresh lightning, from underneath the hooded sweatshirt, he saw it wasn’t a guy at all, but a woman.
No, a girl actually. Most likely a runaway.
Don’t do it.
Trampas, his Heinz 57 mutt—who, come to think of it, was a hitchhiker of sorts as well—peered out the window at the dark night and whimpered from the backseat. A year ago, Brady had found the starving puppy, flea-bitten and tick-ridden, on a long stretch of empty road in the Sonoran desert.
He was already driving past her. He’d almost made it. Then hell if he didn’t glance back and meet the girl’s eyes.
, she mouthed.
He didn’t mean to do it. Hadn’t planned on doing it, but the next thing he knew he was slowing down and pulling over. And that’s when he broke rule number four.
Avoid damsels in distress.
That rule came to him courtesy of a short-skirted cowgirl broke down off Route 66 in Flagstaff. She thanked him for changing her flat by inviting him back to her place for a home-cooked fried chicken dinner and rocking hot sex, except she neglected to tell him she had a grizzly bear-sized husband with a high temper and a hammy fist.
Brady rubbed his jaw. He wasn’t going to give the runaway a ride. Just get her inside the building and out of the storm. Maybe buy her a meal if she was hungry. He would toss her a few bucks for one of the cheap bunk-and-bath motels attached to the truck stop and advise her against hitchhiking.
Meddling. That’s meddling in someone else’s business.
Yeah, and where would he be if Dutch Callahan hadn’t meddled in his life fourteen years ago?
Prison most likely. Or the bone orchard.
He hit the unlock button, knowing it was a bad idea, but doing it anyway. The hitchhiker ran for his truck. She was short enough so that he couldn’t see anything but the top of her head from his perch behind the wheel without peeping into the side view mirror, but he heard her fumble the door handle on the passenger side.
The howling wind snatched at the door, ripping it from her pale, trembling hand and throwing it wide open.
Brady glanced down.
The hitchhiker looked up.
Her eyes were a dusty gray, too large for her small, narrow face, and she stared right into him as if she knew every thought that passed through his head, yet didn’t hold it against him.
He tried to take a deep breath, but to his alarm, discovered that he couldn’t.
For one brief moment, they dangled in suspended animation. Their gazes meshed, their futures strangely entwined.
Of course he didn’t, couldn’t. Not with her standing there looking like a soaking wet fawn who just lost her mother to a hunter’s gun. But the impulse to run, Brady’s instinct to avoid complications at all costs, fisted around his spine and wouldn’t let go.
“Thank you for stopping,” she said in a voice as soft as lamb’s wool. Looped around her shoulder she carried an oversized satchel. “Your kindness is much appreciated.”
The breath he’d tried to draw finally filled his lungs with a swift whoosh of damp night air. He nodded.
Somehow, she managed to plant her feet on the running board, grab the door in her right hand, and then swing up into the seat in one long, smooth, ladylike movement. Her satchel rustled as she tugged the heavy door closed behind her, and with a solid click they were cocooned inside.
Her scent, an intriguing combination of rain and talcum powder and honey, filled the cab, vanquishing his own leather, horse, and beef jerky smell. The sweatshirt hoodie was tied down tight under her chin so that he couldn’t see her hair, but her eyebrows were starkly black in startling contrast to skin the color and texture of fresh cream. She possessed the cheekbones of a Swedish supermodel, as high and sharp and cool as the summit of Mount Everest, but in spite of that barrier of heartbreaking beauty, there was something about her that had him yearning to toss an arm around her shoulders and tell her everything was going to be okay. Maybe it was because she was so ethereal—pale and slender and wide-eyed.
She wore dark blue jeans with a sharp crease running down the front of the legs. Plain, brown, round-toed cowboy boots shod her petite feet. In spite of being drenched, both the jeans and boots looked brand-new.
Trampas leaned over the seat, ran his nose along the back of her neck.
“Oh.” She startled, laughed. “Hello.” She reached out a hand to scratch the mutt behind his ear. He whimpered joyously.
“Down, Trampas,” Brady commanded.
The dog snorted but reluctantly settled, his tail thumping against the backseat.
The hitchhiker turned to snap her seat belt into place, the satchel now clutched in her lap.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Brady said. His words hung like a curtain in the air between them, not making a lick of sense coming from a traveling man who dragged his home behind him.
She raised her head and met his gaze again. “I beg your pardon, sir?”
Speech eloped. Just ran right off with his brain. On closer inspection, her eyes weren’t simply gray, but loaded with tiny starbursts of sapphire blue. He motioned toward the gas pumps. “I was just . . .”
She canted her head and studied him as if every word that spilled from his mouth was golden. “Yes?”
“Gonna get some gas.”
“That is acceptable.” She folded her hands over the satchel.
Huh? As if she were giving her permission? “And supper. I was gonna have supper.”
“Then why did you stop to pick me up?”
Beats the hell out of me.
“You looked cold. And wet. You looked cold and wet.”
“I am,” she confirmed. “Wet and cold.”
He reached over to turn on the heater, angling the air vents toward her. He had never turned on the heater in June in Texas. First time for everything. “Why didn’t you go inside the truck stop?”
She shrugged as if the gesture said it all.
Her slight smile plucked at him.
The shrug again, accompanied by a shy head tilt. She licked lips the color of red honeysuckle, and for no good reason at all, he thought of caramel—sweet, thick, chewy. If he kissed her, she would taste like caramel. He just knew it.
You’re not going to kiss her. Get that idea out of your head right now. You don’t need the hassle.
But the more Brady tried not to think about kissing her, the more her lips beckoned.
“You got a name?” he asked.
“Brady. Brady Talmadge.” He put out a hand.
She looked at his palm as if shaking hands was an alien concept, then finally took it for a brief second, smirked like someone enjoying a private joke, and said, “Annie.”
“No last name?”
She paused. “Coste.”
“Well, Annie Coste, you can join me inside for a meal, my treat, or you can find yourself another ride and be on your way. It’s up to you.” Damn, he hoped she chose the latter option. She had trouble scribbled all over her. Yeah, so why had he broken his own rules? Because he was a sucker for doe-eyed damsels.
That was the operative word.
“I am hungry,” she admitted.
“Great,” he said.
Great as a busted axle. Why had he picked her up? Stupid. Glutton for punishment. Misguided sense of chivalry. Dumbass. What a total dumbass. What was wrong with him? But come on, how could he have left Bambi shivering by the roadside when some unscrupulous son of a bitch could have given her a ride instead? Things had been humming along just dandy and now he was stuck with her. If he’d kept driving—which he couldn’t have because he was almost out of gas—he would be in Jubilee within ninety minutes. Jubilee. The closest thing he’d ever had to a real home. He didn’t want to take her there.
She’s not your problem. You can’t save everyone, Talmadge. It’s not like you’re a paragon yourself.
The thoughts loped through his head as he fueled his truck underneath the protective awning and put Trampas into the trailer. The dog curled up on his bed in the air-conditioned living area and gave him a look that said,
I like her.
“Only because she scratched your itch,” Brady grumbled, and shut the door.
He climbed back inside, pulled the truck around the rear of the building with the semis, and looked over at Annie. Raindrops still clung to her long eyelashes and the hoodie of her sweatshirt. Was it weird that her eyebrows were dark, but her eyelashes were light?
As they walked into the restaurant, the big red digital clock on the wall over the door flashed 9:15. The place was rowdy busy. A port in the storm. Truckers in baseball caps and cowboy hats lined the red and chrome swivel stools at the counter up front.
Several men craned their necks for a better look at Annie. Brady took a step closer toward her, rigging himself up in that she’s-with-me strut that came naturally to a cowboy in the company of a good-looking woman. The hum of voices and clang of silverware drifted to the vaulted rafters. The air smelled of diesel exhaust, chicken-fried steak, and yeast rolls.
Brady stood back to let Annie go in front of him.
She hesitated, resistance in her eyes as if uncertain how to proceed. C’mon. Surely she’d been in a truck stop before.
“This way.” He held out his arm as a guide and ushered her past the front counter on their left and the clear glass refrigeration units chock-full of homemade pies, spread high with meringue, sitting on rotating shelves. She stopped to stare at the pies, as awestruck as a five-year-old.
“We’ll get some for dessert,” he said.
Her beaming smile heated him up like an electric blanket on a cold winter night. “Really?”
“You can have two slices if you like.” Brady escorted her past the “Seat Yourself” sign to an empty booth in the back of the room situated underneath the head of a mule deer buck.
Eyeing the taxidermied animal, she slid across the red vinyl seat, untying the string of her hoodie as she went, and then she slipped the satchel from her shoulder. She cleaved to the thing like she had gold bars in it.
Brady secured the seat across from her.
She tugged off the hood, revealing black hair chopped short and spiky. It looked as if she’d taken a pair of jagged-teethed pruning shears and hacked it off herself, but he supposed it was probably some hip salon cut that cost a hundred bucks or more. The harsh hairstyle, paired with her wide gray-blue eyes and pale skin, gave her the appearance of an anime cartoon heroine—waifish and innocent—accentuating the whole damsel-in-distress thing.
Next, she wrestled out of the sweatshirt, revealing a simple white blouse with cap sleeves, showing off toned arms that knew their way around a biceps curl. She was not the typical truck stop hitchhiker. No piercings (not even her ears), no tats (at least none he could see), no skimpy, too-tight clothing flaunting too-big breasts. She was like a daisy sprung fresh in the garden. No, that was too common. Not a garden daisy, but a rare buttercup growing on a mountaintop. Sunny, sweet, lustrous. Unexpected. Special.
What the hell? Where was that coming from?
If he were smart, he’d pass her twenty bucks, get up, and walk out. Clearly, he was not smart because instead of doing that, he took off his straw Stetson, settled it on the bench seat beside him, and ran a hand through his hair.
The right side of the booth butted up against a thick, rain-painted plate-glass window. Outside, the vapor lamps glowed ghostly in the rumbling storm. Inside, someone with a sense of humor set the jukebox playing “Let it Rain” by David Nail.
Annie harvested a napkin from the red and chrome dispenser on the table and started polishing the Formica surface, whisking away crumbs left behind from a slapdash busboy’s one-swipe attempt at cleaning the tabletop.
A waitress, dressed in a retro pink dress with a white bib apron and battered sneakers, bopped over with two menus tucked under one arm and two glasses of water in her hands. “Here y’all go,” she said. “I’m Heather and I’ll be back in a minute to take your order.” Then off she went.
Brady shifted his attention back to Annie. Her head was bowed over the menu. One dainty finger slid down the list of offerings.