Hold Me Close

Bridgewater County – Book 4

© 2017 by Vanessa Vale

CHAPTER ONE

RACHEL

Even though I was born and raised in Montana, I’d never really understood the appeal of the rodeo circuit. The animals, wrangling them, tying little calves’ ankles up as fast as possible. But as I watched this cowboy riding the massive bull, the muscles of his chest rippling beneath the fabric of his shirt as his arms bulged beneath the strained material, I finally got it. He rocked back and forth, balancing and going with the jerky motions of the angry beast, arm flung up over his head.

Oh Lordy, I got it.

I gasped when the bull kicked out its hind legs, not because I was scared for the cowboy but because of the way his thighs contracted beneath those jeans to stay on its back. Jeans, I might add, that left little to the imagination. The whole thing was stupid, plain stupid. Stay on a bull for eight seconds, but somehow every one of my hot buttons was pushed watching the testosterone-fest.

“Here’s a napkin.” My sister’s voice cut into my openmouthed gawking. I turned to face Emmy, who somehow still managed to look sleek and stylish in a jean skirt and flowy top even when eight months pregnant. She held out one of the napkins she’d nabbed when she’d gone to get herself an ice cream cone.

I frowned at it. “What’s that for?”

Emmy grinned. “You’ve got a little drool there.”

My frown turned into a scowl. “I was not drooling.” I turned away and subtly swiped the corners of my mouth just in case.

“Whatever you say, sis.” I didn’t have to see her to know she was rolling her eyes in my direction. Even though she was younger, Emmy had the air of a know-it-all older sister. But then, she was the one who was happily married with a baby on the way while I was still deeply rooted in spinsterhood with no end in sight. Somehow, this seemed to give her an advantage that negated my two years’ seniority.

Emmy had a Bridgewater marriage, which meant she was the lucky bride of two doting, protective men. Like all my siblings, she had a big heart and a good head on her shoulders and I wished only the best for her. Except for now. As she licked her ice cream, looking impossibly smug, I wondered for the millionth time how my bratty little sister managed to snag not one, but two men, when I hadn’t managed to land a second date in more months than I’d cared to admit.

It was fine and all if it were just Emmy having a baby, but I was one of six. All five of my siblings were married with kids, or in Emmy’s case, with a kid on the way. Two of my brothers were in Bridgewater marriages as well, but the rest had followed in my parents’ footsteps and gone the traditional route. One man, one woman. And everyone had found their “perfect someone” or “perfect someones” early. Emmy was only twenty-four and my brother, Zach, had married at twenty-one. My parents always used to say, “When you know, you know.”

Well, I’d yet to know.

Honest to God, I didn’t care what kind of relationship I found myself in—traditional, Bridgewater, or other—I just wanted to be in one. Not that I was desperate for a man. No, I didn’t sit around the house pining for one. Besides, I didn’t just want any man, I wanted the right man…or men. I dated, but so far there hadn’t been any spark, not anyone that I’d wanted to go out with past a second date. So I’d sort of given up. Not that I’d ever been on the prowl, but I wasn’t going to bars with my girlfriends on Friday nights looking for hook-ups. Well, I’d never gone looking for a hook-up, but I’d gone looking. And it hadn’t worked.

Because of this, I wasn’t exactly boy crazy, but I definitely was baby crazy. I wasn’t old, by any means, but I’d thought that by twenty-six I’d be in the same boat as the rest of my family. If not married with kids, at least well on my way. Heck, Emmy was having a baby before me. Yeah, that hurt, not that I’d ever tell her or let it show. It was my problem, not hers. It wasn’t her fault she found two guys who loved her and wanted to make a life with her. A family.

I’d had it all planned out. College, grad school, then start a family. Sure I was young, but I wanted a big brood and that meant starting early. But somehow, at some point, my life plan had gotten derailed. I stifled a sigh as I turned to watch the hottie cowboy pick up his hat from the dirt ring, lift it and wave it in air. The crowd cheered and clapped as he walked out through the open rail. Even the back of him looked damn good in the chaps and snug jeans. They were well worn and molded his butt just right.

Dammit. Emmy nudged me with her hip, caught me ogling again. “You should go back there. Introduce yourself.”

I looked at her as if she had suggested I climb on the back of the bull and go for a ride. “Introduce myself? To the bull rider? I couldn’t do that.”

Emmy glanced at me. We looked similar with our light brown hair and hazel eyes but she was several inches shorter. “Why not?”

I shrugged. Because I couldn’t. I wasn’t like Emmy. She had no problem going up to strange men and flirting—well, she hadn’t before she’d fallen for Rick and Kevin two years ago. They were alpha males through and through and they were the only men she flirted with now. The bowling ball beneath her shirt proved that.

But that wasn’t me. I’d never been great at flirting and super attractive men tended to make me nervous. No, I always turned into a stuttering idiot. The reason behind my single status wasn’t such a mystery after all.

“You’re intimidated, aren’t you?” Emmy continued. God, she was way too amused by my discomfort. Some things never changed.

“By that guy?” I pointed in the direction he’d gone. “Absolutely. You saw him. He’s…insanely hot. Of course, I’m intimidated.”

I didn’t bother denying it. We both knew I was the reserved one in our family. That was the way I put it. Emmy and my other sisters just called me a prude. What they didn’t know—what I’d never told them—was that my wariness around hot men, well, practically all men, wasn’t just because they intimidated me. It went deeper than that. I knew that if they got close, they’d want to get close. I’d had exactly one attempt at sex and it had been awful. Scary.

Back in college, there’d been a guy. A good guy…or so I’d thought. On our third date he’d assumed we’d be doing more than just kissing. He’d assumed wrong. I hadn’t been ready to take it to the next level, but he wouldn’t listen. His hands had been everywhere despite my protests and my feeble attempts to push him off me. He’d been too strong, too determined.

I shivered under the June sun. Thank god my roommate had come in when she had or who knows how far it would have gone. As it was, he’d groped and fondled but never managed to get my pants off. Still, the experience had left me with a bad taste in my mouth whenever dates started to get too close. I froze up. Panicked. My stomach still turned when I thought of how the jerk’s hands had felt on my skin and no matter how attracted I was to a guy, that was all I could think of whenever a man leaned in for a kiss.

Needless to say, intimacy was not exactly my strong suit.

I didn’t say any of that to Emmy, however. It wouldn’t have made a difference. Her mouth was set in a stubborn line.

“Go on, say hello,” she said. Her eyes were filled with a familiar mischievousness. The kind of look she used to give right before I walked into whatever booby-trap she’d laid for me in our shared bedroom.

“Why?” My eyes narrowed with suspicion. She wouldn’t just push me to flirt with any old guy. “Do you know him or something?”

“Or something.” She nodded, barely able to contain her laughter. “You will, too. He’s your new boss.”

I blinked at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, but then her words clicked and my brain registered their meaning.

“My boss?” That perfect specimen of man was my new boss? Emmy had been working as the office manager for a local guest ranch, Hawk’s Landing, since she graduated college. She’d be leaving in a matter of weeks to have the baby and didn’t plan to return to work. Since I’d just moved home after finishing up my master’s degree in Denver, Emmy had talked her employers into giving me the job sight unseen.

It was a good job in my field and I’d been grateful for the opportunity. But now…I stared after the large, manly man who’d walked off toward the stables and I tried to still the butterflies in my belly. Well, now I was nervous for so many reasons.

I couldn’t work for a man like that. How was I supposed to interact with a hottie cowboy and still maintain any sort of professionalism? I’d be a stammering, bumbling fool around him.

“He’s not a professional bull rider?” The way he’d pivoted and rocked his hips on that bull made me wonder what he’d be like using them for riding something else, like me. Was the sun getting hotter?

“Nope. He does it just for fun.”

Fun. Taunting every conscious female, more likely.

Emmy’s voice was laced with laughter. “If you think he’s gorgeous, wait until you meet his business partner.”

I turned to see if she was serious. She was. Oh shit. “There are two of them?” My mind reeled. Two hot men would be my new employers. Oh, Lord help me.

She nodded and wrapped an arm around me as she steered me in the direction of the stables. “Go on,” she urged. “You need to meet the owners eventually. You might as well introduce yourself to Matt now. Get it over with.”

I looked over with apprehension. “Why, is he a jerk or something?”

Her head dropped back as she let out a loud laugh like I’d just said something hilarious. “A jerk? Nah. Matt is sweet as can be. I just meant it’d be better for you to meet him now, somewhere casual, before he becomes your boss.”

“I don’t know,” I hedged, dragging my feet as she attempted to lead me.

She came to a stop and I nearly toppled over. Dropping her arm from my waist, she placed her fists on her hips as she turned to face me with her know-it-all look that I hated. Mainly, because when she wore it, she was typically right. Like now. “Rachel Andrews, if you don’t conquer your nerves about meeting this man you’re going to be useless as his office manager.”

I pressed my lips together, wishing she wasn’t right. I needed to do this. I had to rip off the Band-Aid and get over my nerves. Nerves which were completely unfounded. She’d worked for Matt for years and I hadn’t once heard of him being an asshole. No doubt her husbands would pound him into the ground if he so much as hurt Emmy’s feelings, let alone something worse.

Fearless, that was me. Fine, I’d go meet my gorgeous, jaw-dropping boss.

I gave her a short nod before I could change my mind and headed toward the stables. Right, I could do this. I took a deep breath.

I can do this, I can do this. I chanted that line over and over until I entered the crowded stable, the powerful smell of hay and horses tickled my nose. There were a number of dusty, sweaty cowboys but just as many scantily-clad buckle bunnies who swarmed around like gnats.

Just like any other sport where there were powerful, attractive men, there were the women who were looking to bed them. I was way overdressed in comparison. I had on boots and jeans and a pale pink snap shirt. I wasn’t frumpy, by any means, but I didn’t let it all hang out at a dusty rodeo. Not like these women. Most wore camisoles or slinky tees and short shorts. One buxom blonde to my right was very clearly wearing no bra. It wasn’t cold at all, but it was below freezing out if her pointy nipples were anything to go by.

I looked away, glanced around the milling people, trying to find my new boss. Since it was the county fair, there were more events going on than just the rodeo. I didn’t see Matt, only met the curious gazes of other cowboys and the women who clung to them.

I tugged at the edge of my shirt and tucked my chin as I headed further into the breach. I felt ridiculously out of place. I wasn’t the only woman with a buttoned-down shirt, but I was the only one who wasn’t wearing it opened halfway down my chest to show off a lacy bra. I definitely did not belong, but I’d come this far. There was no way I could turn back now. Emmy would never let me live it down. I was just meeting my new boss. That was it. He wasn’t a smokin’ hot cowboy. He was my boss.

Boss. Boss. Boss.

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