After a year's absence, Tessa returns to the Texas ranch and two cowboys she left when her life turned inside out.
She's here to bury a friend, cut her ties with this town, that's all. That may be all that Tessa's planning, but Rex and
Tyler want their woman back and they're not going to make it easy.
If one good man is hard to find, two are even harder to resist. Tessa's determination to shut them can't withstand
the fire of their mingled passions. Pretty soon, the fire draws them back to each other. How can she leave when it feels
so damned good tucked up nice and tight between them?
It's not long before Tessa realizes she'd rather bend her pride to be with her men than live the hell of loneliness
without them. Also not long before someone else starts threatening their new romance by killing anyone who'll expose
this town's dirty laundry. Not long before Tessa's secrets make her a target herself...
Derek Ford was dead. What that had to do with her, though,
was a mystery that dug under Tessa Fairchild's skin, trumped only by the
question of why she'd bothered to come back here in the first place. She'd cut
her ties to the ranch and everything that went with it a year ago. The last
thing she needed was this haunting sense of déjà vu by returning to the place
where it all started. Yet here she was, answering the summons of a dead man.
Tessa told herself she was here out of respect. After all, Derek had been as
much a victim as she was. Two lives ruined in one fell swoop.
She glanced out the cockpit at her destination below.
Rustlers Retreat, an
experience you'll always remember.
The innocent promotional tagline screamed volumes. She had a
wealth of experience from the few years she'd worked on the dude ranch. That
one revelation, though, delivered a year ago, had not only erased all the good
experiences—it had also chased her
away and forever branded her with a horrid reality she'd never be able to
God knew, she'd tried.
Tessa wanted nothing to do with the ranch or the people
involved with it. Yet at the sight of the white Suburban pulling away from the
large Victorian inn and heading toward the runway, her body trembled and said
otherwise. Rex Williams and Tyler Coltrane were coming to greet her.
She hated that she'd missed them so much. Hated herself more
for the way she'd left. When she'd cut her ties to Rustlers Retreat, she'd cut
her ties to them too. Completely. No harsh words spared.
Had they missed her as much as she missed them?
Not possible. A
sudden spate of nerves coiled in her stomach. She wished she'd taken better
care in what she'd worn. A threadbare T-shirt from Catalina Island, jeans, and
sneakers when she hadn't seen them, hadn't had them, in over a year? Tessa
laughed at herself and the image that came to mind of her flying the aircraft
in fuck-me-now attire. Those nerves broke free of her stomach and trickled over
her skin, igniting goose bumps.
"You all right?"
Nate Bridger's question over the headset—the first words
he'd spoken since they'd taken off from Palm Springs—startled her.
"I thought you were still asleep," she replied, avoiding the
He flexed his shoulders. "I heard the landing gear deploy.
Appreciate the nap, though. It was a long night."
For both of them. By rights, flying today wasn't a good
idea. Tessa didn't care when the only one she had to worry about was herself.
Nate had decided to hitch a ride at the last minute. He wouldn't take no for an
answer, and she didn't have the energy to fight him. Besides, she had to admit
she liked the safety net of having him along. Her pilot's license wasn't that
old, and going solo wasn't her favorite thing to do, especially when
thunderstorms could and did pop up in the blink of an eye between California
and Texas this time of year. Plus, she'd need all the emotional support she
"Not a problem. So why, exactly,
did you insist on tagging along?"
"Avoidance is more like it," she countered.
"True enough," he admitted. "I definitely needed a break
while I figure things out."
Tessa almost asked what
things? But she already had enough on her plate to worry about. When Nate
wanted to talk, he knew he could come to her. That was what friends were for,
and Nate was one of the best.
"I felt you shouldn't fly alone." He rolled the kinks from
his neck. "I know how tired you are. You might think you're fooling everyone,
but I saw how you reacted when you heard about your friend."
Yes, her shock had been real. Fortunately, Tessa had been
able to hide the other emotions that roiled through her—anger, despair,
hurt—and the bone-deep hunger that had struck her at the sound of Tyler's voice
on the other end of the line.
"We're there for each other in other ways. This is no
exception. You'd do it for me." He cracked his knuckles. "And wouldn't take no
for an answer either."
Again, Tessa couldn't argue. The casino ribbon-cutting
ceremony unveiling her latest design hadn't been the most convenient time or
place for the call. But then, was there ever a good time to hear someone you
cared about had died? And Tessa did care about Derek. They were friends, and he
hadn't deserved what had happened any more than she did. Nate had kept the
hounds at bay last night while she'd dealt with her emotions and tried
desperately to get a flight out of Palm Springs. Weekend traffic and weather
delays made that impossible. Thank goodness she had the option of using this
"You never said how he died."
Because talking about it opened the door to other questions
she didn't want to deal with. Like how she knew him. Why she'd left Rustlers
and cut ties with the two men she could barely live without. But then, wouldn't
Nate be asking those questions once he saw Rex and Tyler? Once he saw how much
they meant to her? How much she missed them?
Nope, she didn't want to open those floodgates. And just
because she got all fluttery at the thought of Rex and Tyler didn't mean they fluttered back. After all, a year was a
long time to go without. She sure hadn't. They wouldn't have either. And while
she hadn't moved on, men like them…
"Earth to Tessa. Earth to Tessa."
She snapped her attention into focus. "Sorry. He was killed
in a fall from his horse, but I don't have the details," she finally replied.
No one did at this point. "It doesn't make sense." Nothing had since the day
Mike Ford died, and the life she and Derek had once known died with him. "He
was more skilled than that." But accidents didn't play favorites. Unless…
Tessa bit off another round of rambling thoughts. She had a
plane to land. Focus had to be 100 percent. She flexed her fingers around the
controls and focused her attention on landing the aircraft. She watched Nate
from the corner of her eye, waiting for him to say something. His silence
forced her to glance his way.
She watched as Nate scanned over the acres of prime Texas
hill country real estate from behind his dark aviator glasses.
"It is that." Acres and acres of rolling green dotted with
cattle in the distance, a sprawling ranch house, the three-story
Victorian-style inn, and the aviary that had brought her to the ranch in the
first place three years before. All upwind of the livestock, of course, and a
good distance from the runway. It looked like a small community with all the
outbuildings and private guest houses spread around the place.
White oyster-shell roads threaded their way through the
green fields to each building. Ancient oaks ringed the property and were also
scattered throughout the pastures, providing well-needed shade for cattle and a
great haven for picnickers…or lovers. Although most of the time, people took
refuge in the climate-controlled aviary.
Scattered ponds mirrored blue sky and fluffy clouds. The
nearby creek was filled to capacity and running hard, evidence of the heavy
storm that had hit the area early yesterday morning. Wind, hail, and tornado
warnings had also played havoc with air travel, thwarting her attempts to book
a flight because of overflow filling the planes.
"Is that aviary your design?"
"It is. Mike Ford commissioned it on word-of-mouth
recommendation. It was my first major job outside of California. I was beyond
thrilled." But her parents weren't. Now she knew why. "He'd wanted a little
oasis for his wife. Inside there's a small brook, small waterfalls, glades for
picnics. Even a large storm shelter beneath it."
"Outstanding. She must have loved it."
"She never lived to see it. Cancer took her first."
That about summed it up. She hadn't known Mary very long but
had really liked her.
"How close were you to being finished?" Nate asked.
"I had the blueprints, and that was it. Mike still wanted it
"Derek Ford is his son?" he asked.
How to answer that one. "Born and raised here." That much
was the truth. "Mike died a year ago." Shortly after she'd finished her work.
"I'd like to say it's nice you were able to maintain a
friendship with his son, but somehow, I'm not sensing that from you. So who is
Derek to you? Friend, business associate…lover?"
"Friend." Yes, they were that. "It's complicated."
"It always is, isn't it?"
Nate sounded sad, resigned, and she couldn't help wondering
what had or was complicating his life. Everyone had their secrets. Secrets that
sometimes ruined the lives of others. Tessa wished Mike had kept his secrets to
"I've got this."
Nate folded his big hands around the controls, and just like
that, he took the plane from her. Relief seeped into her muscles.
"Here we go."
The wings dipped as he banked into the final turn to
approach. Blue sky and fluffy clouds stirred her memory of fresh-cut grass, hot
cowboys, a want that grew every second she was with them, and the reality that
had ruined it all.
"The welcoming party's arrived." Nate's chuckle reverberated
through the headphones. "Oh ho…cowboys. No wonder you wanted to come alone."
Another jolt of want wiggled through her. Her heartbeat
triple-timed. Her nerves tingled. "I didn't say I wanted to come alone. I said
I didn't expect to be here long."
Nate leveled out. The runway was dead ahead. Tessa riveted
her attention on the white SUV and the two men standing next to it. They grew
closer by the second, giving her a view so startling, she swore she could feel
the heat of their bodies, smell the sweat on their skin. Both were dressed in
dusty boots, well-worn jeans, and long-sleeved western shirts—Rex in chambray
blue, Tyler in tan plaid. Tan cowboy hats shielded their faces from the sun.
Sunglasses hid their eyes. Six-foot-somethings with
shoulders made to cling to and raw muscle no material could ever hide. No
matter what the circumstances, they still were and always would be
irresistible. The challenge of stripping them bare and having them laid out for
her pleasure—or she theirs—churned her blood and raced her heart.
Rex and Tyler gave as good as they got and then some. It was
the then some that had played through
her mind the last year, making her reach for her toys at all hours of the day
and night, or lure a friend—aka Nate—into easing her woes. No, she hadn't
wanted Nate along. Awkward about summed it up.
A shiver coursed through her. Enough of that. Her body didn't listen. Her mouth watered. Her clit
throbbed, parting the flood of juices below. Tessa had a serious weakness for
these cowboys and their calloused palms, wide belts, and strong thighs used to
long hours in the saddle. Her insides thrummed at the thought of hot cowboy
flesh pressed against hers.
"They're Derek's partners in Rustlers Retreat, Rex Williams
and Tyler Coltrane." At least that was the plan when she'd hauled ass out of
there a year ago—full partnership in the ranch and inn, rather than the inn
"How do you fit into the picture?"
Very nicely right
Nate's chuckle hinted he knew what she was thinking. The
plane bounced with the landing, a deliberate maneuver meant to rattle her, just
like his laughter. Tessa didn't appreciate it in the least.
"Your landing sucks."
Nate laughed. "Is that the best you can do?"
She kept her mouth closed, eyes riveted on the cowboys
monitoring their stop.
Nate cut the engines and shut down the controls. "I have to
say, they don't look too happy."
No, they didn't. Rex's scowl almost broke her heart. She'd
done this—deserted them, walked out like they didn't matter, like what they'd
shared in the time she'd been there was nothing. "They just lost their friend.
Their business partner."
"I'm pretty good at reading people, Tess. I'm not seeing
grief. One's pissed, and the other one's got walls up."
True enough. Worse were the feelings stirring inside her at
the sight of them—not the ones that curled her toes and plummeted her stomach,
but rather the ones that forced her to mirror their actions. Yeah, she might
have walked out, but if they cared for her as much as they said they did,
"You spoke to one of them yesterday after the lawyer called,
and everything seemed fine."
The richness of Tyler's voice over the phone had seeped into
her veins, triggering so many emotions she'd wanted to weep. The memory of all
the good times they'd shared had lingered throughout the night and had helped
take the edge off the ordeal to come. Envisioning his tongue tracing idly
through her…nether regions sweetened her dreams in what little sleep she'd
managed to get.
"Maybe something's happened since then," Nate said. "I'm
just saying, having your guard up might be a good idea."
"No problem there."
Tessa made the mistake of glancing toward them. She bit her
"I don't think looking like you want to jump their bones is
what you were going for." He chucked her under the chin.
She flashed him a glare. "Maybe I'll jump yours instead."
"I'm crushed you'd use me as a substitute for what you
really want." The glint in his eyes said differently.
Tessa unsnapped her seat belt. "That never seemed to bother
"Aha. Now you admit you were thinking of someone else
whenever we were together."
"And you weren't?" She snickered.
"Point made. But"—he pulled off the headphones—"that's what
friends are for, right?" He gave her a wink, released his seat belt, and
started to stand.
Tessa fisted his T-shirt, holding him in place. "I need you
to have your game face on." That no-nonsense look that scared the piss out of
people and made linebackers quake.
"Why? To scare them off so you won't be tempted? To teach
them a lesson?"
He didn't have to thread that hint of laughter through the
words. "Something like that." Damn, did her cheeks heat with that statement?
"I'll consider it." He whipped up his right index finger.
"But if there's any hint they're gonna beat me up—"
"What's so intimidating about two cowboys? You could take
"I don't know, Tess. You tell me."
Heat definitely flushed her cheeks this time, giving her
Nate's laughter filled the plane. Tessa was fairly certain
Rex and Tyler heard it too.
"Well, well, well." He leaned into her space. "This should
be interesting." He peeled her fingers from his T-shirt but didn't release her
hand. "All right, then. Game face on for the moment. But I'm not getting in the
middle of this. Unless you want me to," he added with a wide grin, his innuendo
loud and clear.
Tessa jerked her hand free. "We're wasting time."
She pushed from her seat, anxious to put as much distance
between them as possible. He'd scrambled her thoughts, churned her emotions,
and hadn't really helped one damn bit. Some
friend he turned out to be.
Tessa released her hair from its haphazard ponytail and
fluffed out the long strands. She stuffed her scrunchie into her pocket, then grabbed
her carry-on and exited the plane. Texas heat and humidity slammed into her
full force, making her wish she'd shoved vanity aside and left her hair up.
Sure strides took her toward Rex and Tyler. False bravado
but bravado nonetheless. No one needed to know her emotions danced a fine edge.
Too many thoughts conspired against her control. Tessa fought every one, only
too aware of the man coming up behind her and the two cowboys in front of her.
Her breath hitched. She wanted to run to them, toss her arms
around them both, and feel them press her between them, shielding her from the
world. Tessa shoved the emotion back where it belonged, behind her walls, and
yanked her badass persona to the forefront. It was her protection against the
world. The one that made her a formidable and well-respected businesswoman.
Both men relaxed their rigid stance as she neared, making
her second-guess herself. A hint of dimples kissed Tyler's suntanned cheeks.
Rex's square jaw was set but not clenched. Seeing their eyes would have helped
her judge them better. She could tell a lot from a person's eyes, especially
She pushed her sunglasses up, using them as a headband.
Tyler snatched his off, stuffing the stem into his shirt pocket, lowering his
defense shields, as it were. Seeing his chocolate-brown eyes and the hint of
sparkle in them helped. Maybe things weren't as they seemed.
It was Tyler who moved first, stepping forward to close the
distance between them. Tessa quickened her pace, her arms opening of their own volition.
In seconds he'd swooped her into a hug, lifting her sneakered toes off the
ground. She held on for dear life, eyes closed, her face burrowed into his
neck, inhaling the scent of one of the men she'd loved yet left. Strong,
calloused fingers slipped under her T-shirt and spanned her back.
"God, I've missed you."
His voice rumbled in her ear. The swell of his erection
against her stomach backed up the words.
"I've missed you too," she whispered. So much.
He kissed her cheek as he eased them apart. All too soon,
three feet of space stood between them. The distance killed her. She wanted to
grab his face and seal her lips to his.
"Sorry, we're a little sweaty." Tyler swept his hand down
his flat torso. "We had a tour group arrive this morning."
Despite the tragedy, it would still be business as usual.
Tessa wondered if any of the guests realized one of the owners had died.
"They're on a trail ride and picnic." Tyler pointed to a
line of oak trees far to the left. "Our in-house guests are—"
"Smart enough to stay inside in the middle of a hot August
Rex's deep voice rivaled thunder. There'd be no hugs from
him. He wasn't happy to see her. Judging from the scowl he shot over her
shoulder, he wasn't happy to see Nate either.
Tyler squeezed her shoulder—a touch Tessa took as a silent
apology for Rex's behavior—then let go.
She tried to soothe Rex's ruffled feathers with an
introduction. "This is Nate Bridger."
"Your lover of the moment?"
Jealousy? So he did
care. A pity he'd used a snide tone that ruffled her feathers. She stared Rex down. "And it's your business
Rex fidgeted enough to let Tessa know she'd won the round.
She didn't gloat. Somehow she suspected it was the first of many. Rex
definitely liked to be in charge. Well, so did she. Being at war gave her the
distance she needed to stay away.
"I was asking because of accommodations." Rex braced his
hands on his lean hips. "We've got a full house at Rustlers. I'd planned to
have you stay in my bungalow for the duration of your stay. I'll bunk at the
ranch house." One eyebrow lifted behind his dark glasses. "Unless you'd prefer
to stay there."
Ah, the ranch house. The scene of the crime. A reminder that
her life wasn't what she thought it was, that she wasn't who she'd thought she was. He had a lot of nerve. The
cut hurt. Words failed her. Her lower lip betrayed her emotion first,
quivering. All the willpower in the world wouldn't stop it. Her carefully
erected walls crumbled.
Tears blurred her vision. She reached for her sunglasses to
cover her eyes. A tear had the nerve to trickle down her cheek before she could
do so. Gaze locked on Rex's shadowed eyes, she felt the droplet wiggle toward
her chin but refused to acknowledge it by wiping it away.
"The ranch house would be perfect." She slipped her
sunglasses into place. "Be a dear and fetch my bags."
Tessa walked on to the Suburban, knowing at least two men
watched her go and that neither of them was Rex. That was fine with her. She
didn't need him to notice she measured every step, using the energy to shore up
emotional buttresses, and that one trip would mire her in a wasteland of agony
so great, she'd never pull free.
Wasn't that already the case? Mike Ford had seen to that a