©2016 Sara F. (Walter) Ellwood, all rights reserved
Excerpt 1 (Highlight)
“Okay.” Michaela breathed the word.
“You’ll marry me?” Gabe didn’t bother hiding his surprise.
She drained her glass with a wince. “Damn, I’ve never liked champagne.” Michaela headed for the fridge. “Do you have any beer in here?”
He was more uncertain now than he’d been before he started thinking about this crazy idea. “Yeah. Lone Star. Get me one, too.” When she turned with the longneck bottles in hand, he chuckled. “A two hundred dollar bottle of fine French bubbly, but we’d rather drink Texas beer.”
“I’m a country girl, Gabe. You’ve always known that.” She handed him one of the
bottles. “I’ve actually been thinking the same thing–that if I were married the judge would’ve given me Jesse. But the only man I can think of is Cash Nelson.” She twisted the top off the beer and took a long draw. “But he would read too much into the agreement. I never considered you. Hell, the whole town knows I can’t even stand you. How is this gonna work?”
Gabe didn’t like the way his heart pinched at her words. He tossed the cap from his beer beside hers on the island top and took a drink. “We’ll have to convince them otherwise. We have a history and we’ve been working together”–he grinned as he remembered the custody hearing– “or against each other for weeks now. Everyone knows there’s a fine line between love and hate.”
No one else but Gabe would be parked out front of her home in some fancy luxury car. Was he here to gloat over his desire to adopt Jesse?
The echo of footsteps filled the breezeway of the barn, and Micki sucked in a breath. The image of him and that stripper she’d seen on the computer last night flashed before her closed eyes. Why did it bother her so much? She didn’t care what Gabriel McKenna did. Nor should she have expected more from him.
Gabe stopped on the other side of her horse, but she didn’t look at him. She continued stroking Beau’s neck with a currycomb as he slurped water. “What the hell are you doing here?”
He stroked the other side of Beau’s neck. “I’m here because we need to talk about the ranch. Loretta said the owner offered you a management position.”
“They did and I’m thinking I’ll tell them to go to hell.”
With a sharp look, he said, “I wish you’d take the job. There’s something about this whole thing you don’t know.”
She tossed the comb onto a shelf. “What isn’t there to know? One of those sleazy out-of-state agglomerates wants to destroy the ranch I love, and the man I should have known better than to trust is stabbing me in the back.”
Gabe stiffened his stance and glared at her. “Damn it, Michaela, I’m not trying to take Jesse away from you. I want to keep him out of Lemont’s hands. I still want you to have guardianship of him.”
She stepped away from the horse. “I thought only you were good enough to raise him.”
“I never said that.” He stepped away from Beau and put his hands in his jeans pockets. “We’re in this together. All my lawyer thinks is that it would be easier for us if I petition the court for adoption than for us to try to adopt him together.”
“That doesn’t explain your appearance here at the ranch.”
He shifted his feet, his hat hiding his face. “I consider the Lazy M my home as you do, Michaela. I…” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and met her gaze.
Before he had a chance to tell her more pretty words that were nothing but lies, she said, “We aren’t friends. If your father and my sister hadn’t died, we wouldn’t even be talking to each other. Now you want to take Jesse away from me.”
Micki spun away from Gabe. Beau shifted his feet, bumping into her, probably sensing her frustration. The last person she wanted to talk to was Gabe.
She led the horse into his stall. Micki hoped Gabe would have gotten the hint and left. Her luck wasn’t that good. He leaned against a door of the stall next to Beau’s.
Micki dragged her gaze up his body. Over his polished snakeskin boots, his long, muscular legs encased in faded denim, the T-shirt that covered a flat belly she knew was washboard solid. She’d seen enough pictures of his bare torso on the Internet to know–as if her memory didn’t already provide enough X-rated images on its own. With his arms crossed over his broad chest, his biceps bulged. A tattoo of his mother’s first name, scripted over a breast cancer ribbon and surrounded by an intricate border, peeked out from under the edge of the black cotton of his sleeve.
She wasn’t prepared for the burst of heat shooting through her as fast as a brushfire in dry grass at high noon. The flash melted her insides into a wet, achy pool in her low belly.
Not wanting him to know how he affected her, at least not in that way, she turned toward the wall. She grabbed a rake and opened the stall door farthest away from him. As she busied herself with cleaning out the empty stall, she said, “You know, I’m glad you’re such a jerk.”
“Michaela, I have a plan that–”
“You honestly think a conservative judge like Anderson will let you have Jesse?” she cut in, glancing up to find him standing by the door of the stall she was working in. With more force than required, she raked the manure and straw on the floor. Pausing, she fixed him with a glare and let him have the full weight of her frustration and anger. “You’re fucking delusional! You showed the world, and more importantly Judge Anderson, what kind of life Jesse would be exposed to if you were to adopt him.” She stopped and smiled. “Makes my small town life not so damn bad. Tom Fleming thinks I have a pretty good chance of beating you at your own game.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
She came out of the stall and closed the door as if she had all the time in the world, which she didn’t. The animals needed to be taken care of; then she had to make an appointment for the neurologist in Brownwood for her mother. Later that afternoon, she had a job interview at The Lasso Café and Bakery. The job had opened up, and she couldn’t let it pass her up. Work in Bluebonnet Creek was hard to find, and she hadn’t decided whether she would stay at the ranch or not.
But she’d be damned if she’d let him know any of it. When she faced him, she leaned on the rake. “Everyone in the county knows Anderson almost always sides with women in custody battles.” She paused and forced a confident grin she didn’t feel. “Besides, Anderson is no friend of Lemont’s, so that’s in my favor, too. Jesse will be better off with me. He’ll live here in his hometown, and I’ll be the one raising him. That’s more important than what you can offer: a revolving door of nannies, starlet flings, and groupie hookups.”
His jaw ticked as he clenched his teeth and his dark eyes flashed golden-brown fire. He stood with his feet apart, his arms tense at his sides. “As always, you blew this whole damned thing out of proportion. My only concern is my baby brother.”
Micki had waited too long to have it out with him to stop now. She set the rake against the wall and crossed her arms. “Oh, you might want Jesse now, just like you wanted to get married. But the moment something you want more comes up, you’ll leave Jesse flapping in the breeze.”
The muscle in his jaw quivered again, and he took a step toward her. “This isn’t about Jesse at all. This is about you breaking up with me.”
“You’re the one who left with that woman and never came home.”
The fire of a moment ago turned as cold as burnished bronze in his eyes, and his hands fisted at his sides. “You broke our engagement when you handed back my ring and told me I had no damned business coming back.”
Excerpt 3 (Beginning of Chapter 1)
Before Gabe’s stage crew set off the final pyrotechnics, the crowd was cheering. The energy from sixty thousand fans hit Gabe McKenna, lifting him higher than any drug or drink ever could. Hell, this might’ve been better than sex.
Gabe belted out the last words of his first number-one song and finished with a flourish on his electric guitar.
He bowed low, winked, and grinned at the hyperventilating, screaming girls in the front row. A redhead tossed him her panties. They landed on the stage by his feet along with other intimate garments, teddy bears, flowers, and scraps of paper with everything from Will you marry me? to phone numbers on them. He bounced back from the edge of the stage, his arm held high as he waved his tan Stetson in a farewell to another sold-out sports arena.
The tabloids called him “Country’s Rock Star,” and on nights like this, he believed it.
With one more look at his adoring fans, Gabe headed backstage. He handed his guitar to a crew member, while another, walking beside him, removed his wireless microphone and sound transmitter. After taking out his earpieces, he also handed them to the guy. His road band came off the stage behind him, and several of the members slapped him on his back, encouraging him to hurry. The party couldn’t begin until he got there.
His manager, Gary Russell, rushed over to him with a huge grin on his pointed, bony face. “By God, Gabe, if you keep up this momentum, you’ll own the CMAs in November.”
Gabe took the bottle of water and towel the older man offered him. He wiped the sweat from his face and chugged half of the water. Performing in the Midwest was hot business in early September.
“That’s the plan. I really want to be the next Entertainer of the Year.” He grinned at the lanky man in poor-fitting jeans and a black T-shirt. “Male Vocalist”–Gabe slanted his glance toward his manager–“and Song, Single, and Video of the Year wouldn’t upset me either.”
Gary laughed and took the towel from Gabe. “Hell, you might just be the darling of them all: the CMTs, CMAs, and ACMs. Maybe even the Grammys.”
“Wouldn’t mind having another one of those golden record players in my trophy cabinet.” But the competition for the Grammys was tough; beating his best friend, Seth Kendall, would be hard.
“I have to admit, it’s been a good year for me too.” Gary laughed again. Gabe didn’t doubt the statement. Gary not only managed him but also Seth Kendall and his teenage daughter. Emily Kendall was burning up both the country and pop charts with her first few singles.
They turned down another hall. The noise from the crowd disbanding wasn’t as deafening down here. “You get the Billboard ranking of my album yet?”
Several fans and winners of local radio station contests gathered in the green room for a chance to meet him. He and Gary paused at the door. Two security guards waited to ensure no problems at the meet-and-greet. Gary’s smile broadened, splitting his narrow face and nearly taking in his ears. “One Night Rodeo landed squarely in the top spot on the country and number two on the pop charts with over three hundred thousand copies sold the first week out. If you would’ve sold a few hundred more you would’ve unseated Emily Kendall’s reign on the pop chart.”
“Yes!” Gabe punched the air. He would have liked to hit number one on the pop chart, but he wasn’t a pop singer. His fans were as country as his Stetson and cowboy boots. It amazed him he crossed over at all, but as Gary kept telling him the genres were blending and blurring.
Hitting number one on the country chart was what mattered to him. This was the first time he had hit the top spot during release week. He hoped the feat proved to the doubters his career was anything but dead.
Gary’s management of him deserved all the credit. “Thanks, Gary.”
“Yeah, well, just don’t party too hard tonight. We have to be in Omaha at seven AM to do that radio interview.”
“We’ll behave.” Gabe flashed another grin.
Hard to believe that only seven years ago his day job was punching cattle on a ranch in central Texas and he was spending his weekend nights singing in honky-tonks.
Back then Michaela Finn had been the most important thing in his life.
Would he ever forget the way her blue eyes darkened to sapphire when they made love?
Gary cuffed him on the shoulder, dislodging her memory and the ache thinking about her always brought. They headed into the green room to meet his fans.
This was what he lived for now, had dreamed about doing since he first saw a Garth Brooks concert as a kid, and he wouldn’t ever want another life.
Then why did he look for her in every crowd, hoping she’d be there?
* * * *
Micki Finn hated crowds almost as much as she despised Gabriel McKenna. She looked at the woman next to her, obviously a groupie, as were the rest of the frenzied females. All waiting outside the backdoor of the sports center along a cordoned-off path to Gabe’s tour buses.
The redhead beside her was trying for that naturally tussled look with her hair, but the spray glue holding it in place ruined the effect. Compared to some of the other women and girls gathered, Red was overdressed in her skintight, barely there tank dress. Micki’s faded jeans and T-shirt made her regular nun material.
Security held the throng back and the crowd became louder when the doors of the arena opened. Red bounced, her extremely large breasts nearly dislodged from the flimsy constraints of the tank top. She pushed past a pair of women old enough to be Gabe’s mother. The yellow ribbon appeared ahead of the redhead, and Micki followed her, shoving her way around Red to get to the line. Women yelled obscenities and scowled, but Micki ignored them and focused on the man heading toward the waiting bus.
She hated the way her heart skipped a beat before it galloped off like a horse out of the pen after a pistol shot. He was surrounded by men, but he outshined them all. His smile was cowboy handsome as he winked and tipped his hat at the groping women.
Gabe stopped along the line and signed autographs, but when some of the groupies became too daring and grabbed at his black T-shirt or lower, he withdrew to the center of the security guards.
A tan Stetson sat over a shock of raven hair that brushed his collar. Micki wasn’t ready for the sudden desire to run her fingers through the black silk. She fisted her hands until her nails bit into her palms.
The entourage drew closer under the harsh lights, which brightened the area to almost daylight intensity. Micki ducked under the yellow ribbon.
“Hey!” called the security guards and the women behind her at the same time.
She ignored both and got the response she wanted. Gabe stopped and pushed the Stetson back over his high forehead. He peered at her for a beat before dark brows rose over golden-brown eyes, set in a broad, angular face suggesting some Native American genetics. His full lips twisted into a smirk. “I’ll be damned. Never figured you’d become one of my groupies.” When a security guard grabbed her upper arm, Gabe said, “It’s okay, Chuck. I don’t think Miz Finn means me any harm.”
Micki shook off the big man’s grasp then adjusted her own hat. Gabe’s blatant gaze traveled over her scuffed cowboy boots all the way to the Stetson on her head. When he met her gaze again, the heat flowing over her had nothing to do with the temperature of the early September night, her hatred of him, or her anger. She shouldn’t have been affected at all, considering the reasons she’d driven half the night and all day to confront him.
Taking a deep breath to steady the nest of hornets in her stomach, she squared her shoulders. “We need to talk.”
Excerpt 4 (HOT)
Gabe slid out of the saddle and his boots hit the ground with a thud. He patted Devil’s Spawn on the shoulder and the horse nipped at his hat. “Hey.”
Michaela stopped on the other side of the fence and laughed. “I don’t think he likes you much.”
Gabe adjusted his hat and glared at her. “We get along just fine.” He led the horse into the barn, following Michaela. “I already fed the horses this morning.”
She glanced over at him as she unbuckled the cinch of her saddle. “How long have you been up?”
He busied himself with unsaddling Devil’s Spawn. “A few hours.”
As they cared for their horses, silence rolled between them, building the tension to an almost palpable state. Michaela led Beau out to the fenced-off pasture that was all his own. Gabe followed her lead and led one of the other horses and Devil’s Spawn out into another corral of the pasture. Michaela let the last of the horses out, then reached for the rake to clean the stalls at the same time as he grasped it.
They stood boot-to-boot. His hand rested over hers on the smooth wood of the rake handle. He caught his breath, and their gazes locked. As he caressed his fingers over the cotton of her long-sleeve shirt, her muscles tensed under his touch.
Her breath quickened with the advance of his hand to her shoulder, then to the warm skin of her neck. He took her hat off and pulled the band from her ponytail to bury his hand into the golden satin of her long hair. She caressed her free hand over his chest and fisted it in the cotton of his shirt.
Lust boiled through him at the heat in her eyes, and he couldn’t stop himself. He pulled her to him as she tugged on his shirtfront. Their lips came together hard. He plunged deep into her open mouth, dueling with her sweet tongue.
She moaned and wrapped both arms around him, knocking off his hat, which fell forgotten to the floor beside the rake. He brought his hands
down to her firm ass and pulled her up against him. Not satisfied, he lifted her and she wrapped her legs around him as he pushed her against the barn wall.
Breaking the kiss, she nibbled on his ear, then breathed words as wild as the passion burning between them. “Let’s go up to the loft.”
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