Chapter 1 – Strong & Steady




“You know what they say about an oyster’s aphrodisiac properties.”

Really? He was going to use that line? If the guy wanted to think Rocky Mountain Oysters were actually oysters from the sea, then I wasn’t going to tell him otherwise. I smiled vaguely at… Bob. No, Bill. Something with a B. He was in his thirties, well dressed in a suit and gray tie, as if he came directly from work at a bank. He had all his hair, was well groomed, yet seemed perfectly… average. Average wasn’t bad, but he was an idiot. He was shoveling in fried bull testicles as if the free food might run out.

My friend Christy had decided to forgo a sit-down dinner for her engagement party, instead having an open bar and finger foods. I guessed she’d put the Colorado specialty on the menu to mess with the out-of-town guests. The invited group had taken over a private room that connected to the bar area of a popular restaurant in town to drink and socialize. Clearly, the socializing part wasn’t going well because I had to watch Bob/Bill chow down on one bull ball after another.

I’d nibbled on some chicken satay and bruschetta and a few other options the wait staff had passed around and tried not to wince as he used a cocktail napkin to wipe crumbs from his chin.

“You should only eat oysters in the months that don’t have an R.” He nodded as if to confirm his statement.

“Yeah, you can eat these guys probably anytime,” I replied.

He stuck a toothpick in one on the small plate he held, stared at it. “Yeah, being fried helps.”

Yeah, that was it.

Christy had met an amazing man in her fiancé, Paul, but his cousin, who was attempting to work his lackluster charm on me, was a complete dud. He actually thought he was eating real oysters. We were in landlocked Colorado not a coastal town.

I averted my gaze toward the wall of windows. The restaurant was on the third floor of a historic boutique hotel with amazing western views of the mountains.

I really wanted to give him the brush-off, to tell him he needed a breath mint and some dental floss, but he was related to Paul, and I owed it to Christy to keep from alienating one of her future relatives. Besides, I’d probably have to see him at the wedding in a few months, and God forbid he was one of the groomsmen. As a bridesmaid—the oldest bridesmaid in history—I’d probably have to walk down the aisle on his arm. I tried to smile and nod as diplomatically as possible. Smile and nod, but he had the personality of a sea slug or an oyster. We’d talked about Paul and Christy for a minute or two, but after that… he showed himself to be a player. He stood a little too close, his gaze surreptitiously dropping to my chest, and he had an odd leer. It had to be a leer, or he had some kind of tick in the corner of his lip.

Why the guy was lingering with me where there was zero hope of… anything, I had no idea. I’d been burned by a man, okay, scorched to a charcoal briquette, and I wasn’t looking for another one. I’d survived the divorce, survived because Chris needed a mother, needed me to be the strong one. But he was away at college now, and I wasn’t shielded behind the role of parent any longer. I could chat about off-sides rules in soccer or PTA fundraisers, but talking to a guy, a real guy and not another parent from high school, was unbelievably hard. I doubted Bob/Bill knew about any of that, and probably once he discovered I had a child—even an eighteen-year-old—he’d take his bull balls elsewhere.

God, I was such an introvert! I hated big crowds, new people, loud noises. I wasn’t a party person. Because of this, it was hard meeting new people. I was terrible at it, unlike Christy, who never knew a stranger. The whole introvert-extrovert dynamic had helped when she’d been able to pull me out of my shell my first day of work, thankfully introducing me around my new department, which had made us instant friends. It wasn’t as if I was shy or weird or anything, but I was definitely set in my ways. That was what I called it, at least.

Christy called it lonely, and I couldn’t think of anything more depressing than that. She considered me lonely.


She wasn’t being mean, just honest. But, I’d been cautious for so long, and it had been even longer since I dated. Like almost twenty years. Two decades. That was why I showed up at the engagement party without a plus-one and why I wasn’t interested in Bob/Bill and his ridiculous pick-up tactics. Sure, a guy would be great, but I wanted a few brain cells between the ears. While my vibrator didn’t talk and got the job done, it wasn’t like a real man. The weight of him pressing me into the bed. The hard feel of him between my thighs. In me. But an orgasm with a real man wasn’t worth playing games, and I didn’t want to even learn the rules of dating in the twenty-first century. Watching Bob/Bill wipe his mouth again, there was no doubt my vibrator was going to win tonight.

I sighed and took a sip of my water. “Look, I’ve got to go. Christy’s waving me over. Good luck with eating those oysters out of season,” I said.

I took a step away, but he put his hand on my bare arm. He grinned, and I noticed a slight overlap of his front two teeth. “I like to live dangerously.” His thumb stroked over my arm, and I stepped back out of the hold.

Right. I inwardly rolled my eyes.

Clearly, he didn’t take any chances since he was talking to me and not some of the other women in the bar area who were more provocatively dressed and a sure thing. Younger, too. At thirty-eight, I wasn’t really old, but most women my age didn’t have a son in college. Some, I knew, were herding their kindergartener to peewee soccer.

I wasn’t giving off any indicator to Bob/Bill that said take me home with you. The way I had my arms crossed over my chest, even while holding my glass, was a classic indication of not interested. He had no clue. Zero. A woman wanted a guy who pushed her up against the wall and kissed the ever-loving daylights out of her. Well, I did. Wild monkey sex would be good, too. This guy? Not a chance. If I had to guess, I’d say… accountant.

I took a sip of my ice water with lime and glanced up at him through my dark lashes. “What do you do?”

He put an empty half shell on his plate. “I’m an auditor with Social Security.”

Close enough. I nodded vaguely, trying to keep my eyes from glazing over. He was looking for a woman who wanted the white-picket-fence life with two kids and a dog—and oysters. Been there, done that. I even got the T-shirt and now used it to clean my toilet.

Glancing at Christy from across the crowded room, I saw her laughing at something the woman next to her said. She looked amazing in her red silk halter dress, her tanned shoulders and back exposed. Her hair was sleek and long and her makeup was definitely night-on-the-town heavy. It was a different look than her business attire for her job at the hospital and even fancier yet than my everyday ER scrubs. Surprising Paul with her daring outfit had been her plan when we’d gone shopping for her dress, and the way his hand rested just north of appropriate on the small of her back as they chatted and mingled with their friends, I’d say it worked. They were blatantly in love, and it was a little hard to watch sometimes. The tug of longing was strong, like an ache, for I’d never seen the look Paul was giving her ever from Jack, my ex. What hurt wasn’t that I’d missed out but that I might never have it.

My own dress wasn’t remotely in the same caliber as Christy’s. I wasn’t trying to please my future husband, and I wasn’t looking for one either. Not at a bar and not with Bob/Bill. I had no clue how to pick someone up, and I wasn’t twenty-one anymore. My dating skills weren’t just rusty, they were stored in a time capsule from the late-nineties. I observed other women around the bar area. Some wore less clothes than I did when I was in my pajamas, leaving not much to the imagination. They smiled coyly, touched, crossed and uncrossed their legs, batted their eyelashes.

“What about you?” he asked, distracting me from my study. “What do you do?”

I glanced once again toward Paul and Christy and caught sight of a man who stood with them, a man who definitely had not been there before. If he had, I wouldn’t have taken my eyes from him.

“Oh, um… nurse practitioner,” I responded absently as I noticed the man’s arm, corded muscles shifting beneath the white sleeve. A tattoo peeked out from beneath the rolled-up cuff and his hands were big, the fingers blunt. I couldn’t see the rest of him with Paul blocking the full view, and a visceral need took hold to do so. That was a man.

Bob/Bill placed his plate on an empty high top and picked up his beer. Doing so, he inched even closer, irritating me. “Is that one of those aides who helps wheel patients to x-ray? I like those cute uniforms they wear.”

Stepping back, I ignored his words, frustrated I couldn’t get a glimpse of the man. Fortunately, Paul shifted, creating an opening where he was clearly visible. Heat flooded my veins at the sight, and I felt weird butterflies in my stomach. This wasn’t silly, school girl crush feelings. This was something else entirely. This was intense, raw lust. Holy hell, I swore my nipples tightened beneath my dress with one glimpse of him.

He. Was. A. Cowboy. A COWBOY!

Living in Colorado, there were a bunch of them out and about, but I hadn’t seen one this close, and I hadn’t seen one who made me want to pull out a rope and lasso his ass.

Taller than Paul’s six-foot frame, he had broader shoulders and closely cropped dark hair. He wore a crisp white shirt, but it had snaps. A woman must have invented the concept of snaps on a man’s shirt because with this guy, I wanted to grab both sides of it and rip it open, see the defined chest beneath. Lick it.

Snap. Snap. SNAP!

My mouth watered at the idea. It wasn’t just the shirt that said Hello Cowboy! but the pressed jeans that molded oh-so-well to powerful legs. And butt. I’d never had a thing for big, shiny belt buckles, but mmm mmm. He even wore sturdy leather boots as if he’d just come from his ranch. He was all ripped, lean muscle, and my fingers itched to feel every one of them. From across the room, I could see his eyes were dark, a deep and equally dark brow that shadowed them. If my panties got damp from just a glance, what would happen if he turned that gaze on me? I swallowed at the very idea. Look at me. Look at me!

He was definitely tall and dark, but handsome? Not in the traditional sense, but he hit every one of my hot buttons, every button I had no idea I even had. Since when did a cowboy light my fire? They looked hot in the hottie-of-the-month calendar, but I’d never been attracted to one in person before.

But now. SNAP!

The smile Mr. Cowboy gave Paul was wide and friendly and my heart lurched. Although I felt like I’d been staring at him for minutes, it had been a matter of seconds of ogling. My reaction was instantaneous and almost steamy, and… why him? I’d seen more attractive men and felt less. Felt nothing. My body didn’t care that his nose looked like it had been broken at least twice. It indicated a life had been hard and well fought, and I could relate to that.

He was the complete opposite of what I was usually attracted to, which was based on attractive guys in movies not real ones. If the latest James Bond happened to be across the room, I’d certainly knock the other ladies down to get to him. But this wasn’t James Bond. More like his brother who’d spent more than eight seconds on the back of a bull. He looked comfortable in his tattoos and in his western wear. And I liked looking at him in his tattoos and western wear.

“Well?” Bob/Bill shifted enough to block my view of the guy, and I frowned. He was keeping me from staring at the hot guy. What had he asked me? Right, my job.

“Yeah, no.” Such a chauvinistic idiot who didn’t know a bull ball from a bivalve. “That’s a candy striper, and they’re either fifteen years old or eighty, so nothing like that at all. I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing.” Candy striper, my ass.

When I shifted to get a glimpse of Mr. Cowboy again, he was gone. Of course, he was gone while I was lingering with Mr. Dud with bull ball breath. He’d probably caught up to his girlfriend or wife by now, had a hand at the small of her back, kissed her hello. God, I was wasting my time. Why had I stayed and chatted with a guy who made gross misogynistic assumptions about my profession? I’d worked my ass off for my credentials, and he’d assumed I was qualified to deliver flowers to the sick. I should have fled five minutes ago.

Bob/Bill’s hand sliding down my back and settling on my waist had my mind reengaging. “So, ready to head back to my room upstairs?” He took a sip of his beer and watched me over the glass, felt his fingers squeeze my side through my dress.

My mouth fell open as I stepped back, making his hand fall away. Perhaps I was better at picking up guys than I thought. All I had to do was say yes, and I could get it on with Bob/Bill. I needed serious practice if this man was what my skills roped.

“Are you serious?” I had to laugh, and he looked slightly abashed although not for long.

“Well, yeah.” His gaze raked over my body as he closed in once again. I needed a shower from just the look. “We’ve got a connection.”

Connection? Yeah, right. “Right. Um… listen—”

“Sorry I’m late, baby. This place is so crowded, Paul pointed me in your direction.” I felt a hand on my shoulder before I realized the new voice was talking to me. The surprise contact made me jump, but it didn’t feel creepy and gross like Bob/Bill’s hand had. It felt like… electricity crackling in the air before a thunderstorm. Glancing back, it was Mr. Cowboy smiling at me.

At me!

His brown eyes weren’t just dark, they were almost black and were focused directly, completely, utterly on me. They dropped briefly to my mouth.

I froze in complete surprise and gawked at the man. So did Bob/Bill.

“See, Paul knew just where you were.” He pointed toward my friend on the other side of the room.

Paul gave me a thumbs-up, approving this man showing up and pretending to… to what? Date me? He’d called me baby, and hadn’t that sounded hot as hell?

Did Paul really know his cousin was a sleaze and was saving me? Obviously. Now. I was too flipping nice. Ugh.

“Thanks for entertaining my girl since I was late.” While he shook Bob/Bill’s hand congenially, Mr. Cowboy’s voice was deep, rough like gravel, and had a tone of get the fuck away from my woman. Bob/Bill winced as I suspected the handshake was a little firmer than friendly. Once he had his hand back, he grimaced as if indigestion had kicked in, perhaps from the Rocky Mountain oysters or from his one-night-stand plans being aborted.

My girl. Oh my God.

“No problem,” Bob/Bill murmured as he shook his hand then stepped back into safer territory and cleared his throat, checking Mr. Cowboy out, picking up on the extra few inches in height—he was easily six-two—thirty extra pounds in weight and a crap load of badass he’d never have. There was no way he was going to argue with the guy. If Bob/Bill was the oyster of the ocean, then Mr. Cowboy was the shark. Barracuda? Wily, treacherous and silently lethal.

Up close, he was even more… manly. Virile. And I was his girl, at least for the moment. Holy shit, he was hot. Dark stubble roughened his jaw, and his hand against my back was warm even through the cotton of my dress. The butterflies in my stomach earlier were now angry bees, and surely, he could see my heart practically beating out of my chest. Unlike Bob/Bill, his gaze hadn’t dropped lower than my chin. It dipped briefly to my mouth again, and my lips parted slightly, trying to catch my breath.

“What were you two talking about when I interrupted?”

He shifted his eyes off me and onto Bob/Bill, who seemed to turn green around the gills, clearly afraid to say. Propositioning this man’s significant other was not good for his health.

“Oh, um…” Bob/Bill grabbed the knot of his tie and wiggled it, finding it extremely tight all of a sudden.

“Oysters,” I said, willing to spare Paul’s cousin a possible slow and merciless death. He was pretty sleazy but harmless enough, especially with Mr. Cowboy, aka the gorgeous cowboy, beside me. Mr. Cowboy somehow made me feel protected, sheltered and safe from any of Bob/Bill’s less honorable intentions. He made me feel… feminine in comparison to his ultra-masculine presence. It could have been that I only came up to his shoulder or that his bicep was the size of my neck.

I darted a brief glance again at Paul across the room. He winked at me then was pulled back into a conversation. He had sent this guy over to save me from Bob/Bill.

“Oh, you like Rocky Mountain Oysters? I’m not that much of a fan of eating fried bull testicles. I’ve cut enough of them off to know what they look like first hand for me to want to eat ‘em.”

“Fried…” Bob/Bill glanced at his plate, swallowed hard.

“You don’t look too good.” Mr. Cowboy gestured with his chin at Bob/Bill who now had beads of sweat dotting his brow to go along with the off pallor. “Ready?” he asked me, his eyes raking over my face and giving me a wink of his own. “I thought we could sit outside for a spell.”

Without waiting for me to answer, he took my hand and all but dismissed Bob/Bill. His hand was so big, mine was all but swallowed up. While I could feel callouses on his palm, his touch was gentle, which was surprising for a man who seemed so… aggressive, as if the calm exterior was just a façade, and he had tension and energy coiled and ready to be unleashed, especially when aimed at a man who bothered me. When his thumb brushed back and forth over the back of my hand, a chill went down my spine.

Ready? To go off with a hunky cowboy?







Vanessa Vale