Chapter 1 – Teach Me The Ropes
“Think he’s big everywhere?”
“I bet it’s as big as his bank balance. God, could you imagine taking a rich dick for a ride? I bet he likes it a little rough. Yeah, I’d cheat with him.”
I held the preschool door open for Tanner to run back outside to the playground. He’d gotten mud all over his hands, and I’d taken him to get washed up. As he dashed off to the slide, I overheard the two moms chatting.
“Mmm, I wouldn’t mind being pressed up against a wall by him. I’m going to find a way to make that happen.”
It was afternoon pickup time, and the women had arrived a few minutes earlier. They were sitting together on one of the benches within the fenced playground area. While their voices were tipped low because the subject wasn’t for little ears, I couldn’t miss their words. Or the direction they were staring. Or who they were staring at.
A man. A big, hot, cowboy in the parking lot.
He closed the driver’s door on an old pickup truck—that definitely hid the size of his bank balance—set his Stetson on his head and made his way over to the low fence, his gait long. I didn’t miss the play of muscles beneath his well-worn jeans or the way the sleeves of his white button-up were rolled up and showed off corded forearms. He leaned down and set his hands on the tops of the rails and smiled as he watched the kids.
Whoa. That smile was lethal. For my panties.
I’d never seen him before, but that didn’t mean anything. I’d only worked at the preschool for a few months, and since it was summer, kids came on random days based on vacation plans.
Claire, a five-year old with her blonde hair in a single braid down her back, ran over to him and flung her arms up.
Her father easily tossed her up in the air and gave her a noisy kiss on her cheek. She giggled then wiggled in his hold to get down. He set her back on her sneakered feet, and she ran off to the swings, not yet ready to leave because she’d just learned how to pump her legs and swing by herself.
My ovaries just exploded watching the two of them. There was nothing sweeter—and oddly arousing—than seeing a guy being so good with his child. It wasn’t only me who felt that way since the two other women were fanning themselves with their hands as they continued to stare his way.
Those ladies? They already had kids. Men of their own. They could fantasize about Mr. Hot Cowboy all they wanted because they were going to go home and get some from their husbands.
Me? No husband. No boyfriend. The only getting some I’d get was from my vibrator.
I frowned, the hot cowboy thoughts knocked to the curb by the bitterness that thinking about my ex brought on. The asshole had been smooth and a two-timer. Sure, I’d gotten myself in my current mess all by myself by being gullible and too free with my feelings, but Tom had also lied out his ass telling me he was single. Only when I’d loaded up my car and followed him did I find out he was far, far from it. A wife and two kids didn’t make a guy single, that was for fucking sure. Leaving my life in Colorado behind had been plain stupid, and now I was stuck here.
Of course, that wasn’t all Tom’s fault. After finding out about his secret family, I’d chosen a horrible roommate off the Internet who’d decided to steal all my belongings except my clothes… plus my rent money and left me high and dry. Broke and evicted. That was how I was stuck in Montana.
I shouldn’t have trusted Tom. I shouldn’t have trusted Laila, the klepto. I thought I’d learned from my mother and the way she clung to man after man, always being kicked to the curb after they were tired of her. Since she only contacted me after her latest breakup, I assumed she was still in Phoenix with guy number seven. Or was it eight? Guys weren’t to be trusted. And yet, I had. Just once.
I sighed, kicking myself the most for being more like my mom than I thought.
The women giggled which broke me from my thoughts. While Montana wasn’t known for dressing up, they were stylish in jeans, cute tops and wedge sandals. Their hair was artfully tousled, and their makeup subtle but effective. If the hot cowboy was going to go for a woman on the preschool playground, it was going to be one of them. Definitely not me in my old jeans and sneakers. My t-shirt had blue paint on the front, and my hair was pulled back out of my face in a simple ponytail although the slight breeze had tugged some wild curls free.
I had no idea why I was even thinking this guy would choose any one of us. No doubt he was married. Of course, he was married, especially since one of the women said it would be cheating. His wife probably had blonde hair like their daughter’s and knew just how big he was. Everywhere.
“Mommy, Claire pulled my hair.” The whiny voice came from Tamara, who was complaining to one of the moms. She’d just turned four and was cute as could be but was definitely going to be a handful as she got older.
Tamara’s mother, who had the same dark hair but not in pigtails, lifted her head and scanned the playground. I did, too. Claire was still on the swings, laughing at something Tanner was saying as he sat on the swing beside hers.
The woman stood, took Tamara’s hand and came over to me. “You need to punish Claire. She’s mean.”
I arched a brow but didn’t say anything, only squatted down in front of Tamara. Guys I couldn’t deal with, but kids? I had them down. Giving her a small smile, I said. “Hair pulling, huh?”
She nodded, her pigtails bobbing. “It hurt.”
“I haven’t seen you anywhere near Claire on the playground.”
“She did it,” Tamara countered right away, her lower lip sticking out.
I cocked my head. “I’m not saying she didn’t, but when did she do it, honey?”
Tamara looked up at her mom.
“Does it matter?” the woman asked. “I believe my daughter. What are you going to do about it?”
“I am doing something about it,” I replied, tipping my chin up, so I could meet the mom’s eyes. “We talk out our problems here. When did Claire pull your hair?” My gaze flicked to Tamara.
She bit her lip and glanced at me then away. “Yesterday when we were taking off our jackets.”
Even though it was summer, some mornings were cool. Like yesterday when I’d had to wear a sweatshirt until after lunch.
“Did you tell someone then about what happened?” I asked.
Tamara shook her head.
“There isn’t a statute of limitations on bad behavior,” Tamara’s mom said. I couldn’t miss the way she tapped her foot since I was close to the ground.
I ignored her and focused on Tamara. It was obvious where she was modeling her bad behavior, so I had to be a good example here. “What happened exactly?”
She put her finger to her neck as she spoke. “I was taking off my jacket, and my hair got caught in my zipper. Claire helped, but it pulled.”
I stood up and patted Tamara on the head. “Sounds like you need to tell your jacket to stop being so mean. I hope you thanked Claire for helping.”
Tamara looked at the ground then gave a sly glance at her mother. “No.”
I didn’t say anything, just let Tamara take a minute to figure out what she needed to do. “Thanks, Claire!” she called across the playground then tugged on her mom’s hand. “I’m ready to go now.”
Of course, she was since she hadn’t gotten the attention from her mother she’d been seeking.
The mom eyed me up and down as if she was confused how I’d spun the situation around, getting a zipper to be the bad guy. Without saying anything further, the duo cut across the playground to the side gate that led to the parking lot.
I sighed, watching them go, wondering how the woman could walk in those high heels. I’d never be that girly-girl.
The voice came from behind me, and I spun about and practically ran into Mr. Hot Cowboy. My hand flew to my chest. “Fudge, you scared me.”
“Easy there.” He cupped my elbow as if to settle me.
All of a sudden, it was very warm out and not from the afternoon sun. My heart skipped a beat as I stared up, up, up at Claire’s father. I’d totally missed him leaving his spot by the fence. He must have gone inside while I’d been talking to Tamara and her mom because he held Claire’s little pink backpack.
This close, I couldn’t miss that his eyes were fair even though his hair was dark. The contrast was striking. So was the chiseled jaw with dark scruff, as if he hadn’t shaved in a few days. He stared down at me, his gaze raking over my face, my body, then back to my… lips?
“Fudge?” he asked, the corner of his mouth tipped up.
I frowned, glancing at his hand. Instantly, he pulled it away.
“Job requirement,” I replied. “Gotta filter those f-bombs.”
He was looking at me. Studying me even, his eyes looking between mine then sweeping down to my mouth then back. “I overheard your little chat with Tamara. She’s just like her momma and is starting to twist things around to her advantage. I’ve known Delilah since we were kids, and she hasn’t changed a bit.”
I had a momma who liked to twist things around, too, but I wasn’t telling him that. I couldn’t stand his scrutiny and shifted my eyes to the button on his shirt. I felt my cheeks go hot. Damned fair skin.
“Well, yes.” Talking bad about a four-year old—or her mother—wasn’t the best idea.
I couldn’t lose my job.
When I didn’t say more, he added, “It’s amazing one so young could be so skilled at it.”
He wasn’t wrong. I was glad I taught preschoolers and not teenagers because Tamara was going to raise hell in about ten years, I was sure of it.
I didn’t say anything, only glanced at the kids who’d yet been picked up. The other preschool teacher, Sarah Jane, was on the far side of the playground keeping watch, talking to Tanner and moving her arms up and down, probably explaining how to pump his legs like Claire.
“I’ve been avoiding Delilah for years. I appreciate you having Claire’s back.”
I looked up at him then. His eyes wandered over my face again.
“Claire’s a good girl,” I shared.
“Are you?” he asked. Or that was what I thought he’d asked.
I frowned, I lifted my hand to my forehead to shield my eyes from the sun as I looked up at him. Had I heard him right? “Excuse me?”
He gripped my shoulders and turned me, so I wasn’t blinded. Then he cleared his throat as he dropped his hands away. “I’ve never seen you here before. Are you new?” His voice was deep and rumbly.
When I took a deep breath to answer, I picked up his scent. Pine and woods and strong male.
“Yes. I’ve been in town about two months.”
He offered an absent nod. “I’d have remembered you. God, that hair.”
I touched my hand to my head. Blushed. I had wild red curls, and they were pulled back with a tie at my nape. Nothing tamed them no matter how hard I tried. Since I only had the hand dryers in the women’s room at the community center to dry it, it was worse than ever.
He reached out, tugged on a tendril that had escaped and stared at it as if mesmerized. I’d been picked on for red hair growing up, and I wasn’t sure if he was poking fun or pleased.
“It’s red,” I said.
He grinned, met my eyes. “It sure as fuck is.”
It’s red? Seriously? That’s what came out of my mouth? I glanced away, feeling like a complete idiot.
He dropped his hand and tucked it into the front pocket of his jeans.
“Where’d you come from?”
“Colorado, but I moved to The Bend for the job.”
I wasn’t going to elaborate any more than that. He didn’t need to know about Tom or the shitty klepto roommate or the fact that I was broke. And pretty much homeless.
“I’m Sawyer Manning.”
He held out his hand. I stared at it for a second then shook it. The zing I felt had me whipping my head up to meet his gaze. His grip was warm and firm, and I could feel callouses against my palm. I had no idea what he did to make all the money Delilah mentioned, but he didn’t sit behind a desk.
“Anyone ever told you you’re beautiful?”
His voice was soft, and the words took a second to sink in.
Was he… was he flirting with me?
“Anyone tell you you’re too forward?”
I tugged my hand, trying to get it back from the handshake, but he wouldn’t let go. He grinned.
Tanner’s mom arrived, and she waved to me as the little boy ran to her at the gate. I tugged once more, and he released my hand. I waved back to both of them before they left, but my thoughts were on the very big, very sexy guy beside me.
“Since you’re new, why don’t I show you around town,” he said.
I blinked at him then came out of my hot guy induced stupor. Just because he was cowboy calendar gorgeous didn’t mean he wasn’t a jerk. I’d been burned once before. I wasn’t having that happen again. The Bend was small. Really small. If he knew Tamara’s mom since they were kids, that meant he was from here. Knew everyone. I wasn’t going to be the other woman. My mother might not have cared about a guy’s relationship status before she shacked up with him, but I did.
Besides, if I lost my job at the preschool, I had no idea what I would do. I was sleeping in the building’s back room. A short-term arrangement. The preschool’s owner, Irene, had offered for me to stay at her house when she’d learned about my situation, but after one night with three elementary school kids—one who’d put peanut butter on my nose when I was sleeping—plus two dogs and a blind parakeet, I’d asked if I could make use of the small cot until I had the money I needed for an apartment deposit. She’d wanted to do more for me, but I wasn’t going to inconvenience her or be beholden. I didn’t have money, but I had my pride. The way I was saving, I hoped to be in an apartment in a few more weeks.
I’d been stupid before, and that was on me. But no longer. I stepped away from Sawyer Manning and shook my head. I’d done nothing wrong. I had my eyes wide open this time. He was the asshole. God, he was a total player! Picking up women on the playground while his daughter was on the swing? I couldn’t decide if Tom had been worse keeping his family a secret and stringing me along or this guy, blatantly asking me out while I fully knew he had a child. A wife. At least he wasn’t a liar. But still…
I could only imagine what he thought of me. A slut? Worse, a home wrecker? Had he worked his way through all the women in town who knew him?
Crossing my arms over my chest, I tipped up my chin. Met his gaze. “No.”
“No?” he asked, his eyebrows going up and disappearing beneath his hat, seemingly shocked at my answer. “You sure because I grew up here and know all the secret spots.”
If he weren’t married, I’d love for him to show me all the secret spots. On my body. But since he was, his words only pissed me off even more.
“I said no,” I replied then glanced around to ensure no kids were nearby. “If you need me to be more clear, how’s this? No. Fudging. Way.”
Turning away from him, I caught Sarah Jane’s attention and gave her the signal that it was time for me to leave for the day. Since I was crashing in the preschool’s back room at night, I opened in the morning and someone else closed. She nodded then gave me a little wave and I fled inside.
I was so keyed up I was shaky. Tom had done a number on me, but this guy? God, he had nerve. There was a big dick in his pants, but he had balls too. Really big ones.
How did I keep attracting assholes? What the fuck was wrong with me? I opened one of the high cabinets in the back room, the one the kids couldn’t reach, and pulled down my purse.
A hand settled on my shoulder, and I shrieked.
“Look, I’m sorry I—”
I processed the voice, the words, in the same instant I just reacted. Maybe it was everything I’d been going through, maybe Sawyer Manning had been a trigger for all the shit I’d pushed down that had happened because of Tom. The fallout I was still living through now.
Or maybe he was just a dick.
I spun on my heel and kneed him in the balls. He bent at the waist, dropped to his knees, then tipped over onto his side in a fetal position on the industrial carpet. His hands cupped his crotch.
“Oh shit,” I whispered as he groaned from the floor. I glanced at the door, hoped Sarah Jane didn’t come in with any of the other kids, or Claire in search of her dad.
My breath came out in pants, my adrenaline pumping. I stared down at him, noticed the way his face had turned white and couldn’t miss the wheezing coming from his lungs. I hadn’t meant to knee one of the preschool’s clients in the balls. I’d just acted without thinking. In anger.
This was bad. Really bad, even though he deserved it.
This was what I’d wanted to do to my ex. Hit him where it counted, but I never got the chance.
“I’ve had enough of guys like you,” I said, setting my hands on my hips. He was clearly in misery. Served him right. “Try your flirting shit on someone else.”
Grabbing my bag and keys, I stormed out the front door. I’d taught Sawyer Manning a lesson, but had I learned one too? The hard way, like losing my job and where I slept at night?