The Cowboy and the Princess

 

The Cowboy and the Princess

July 31, 2012
Jubilee Texas Series, Book 2

 

Brady Talmadge was a cowboy with five unbreakable rules:

1) Never pick up a pretty hitchhiker
2) Avoid damsels in distress
3) Never order chili at a truck stop
4) Always trust your gut
5) Never tell a lie . . .

This is what happened when he broke all his rules . . . and got into a whole lot of trouble!

On the run from an arranged marriage, Princess Annabella of Monesta dons the guise of a hitchhiking cowgirl. But when she finds herself drenched, alone, and hungry, she has no choice but to trust the tall Texas horse whisperer who offers her a ride. He's like no one she's ever known—a strong sexy man who says just what he thinks. And when one wild kiss leaves her breathless, she quickly realizes she'll give up everything to spend a lifetime of night times in his arms. But how can there be happily-ever-after with palace guards hot on her trail?

BUY FROM:

AmazonB&NIndiebound

 

READ AN EXCERPT

Brady Talmadge had five unbreakable rules for leading an uncomplicated life. One stormy June night in Texas, he broke them all. Starting with rule number five.

Never pick up a hitchhiker.

He honed the rules through twenty-nine years of trial and error, most of them compiled while towing his vagabond horse trailer from town to town, and as long as he stuck to his edicts, life flowed as smooth and simple as the Brazos River ambling to the Gulf.

In regard to the hitchhiker rule, he learned it the hard way. He had a permanent whup-notch on the back of his skull from a pistol-whipping meted out by a wiry, goat-faced thief who’d taken him for thirteen hundred dollars, his favorite belt buckle and a pair of ostrich skin cowboy boots. Never mind the four-day hospital stay that drained his savings account to zero because he’d had no health insurance.

On the satellite radio, the weatherman warned of the fierce line of unrelenting storms moving up from Hurricane Betsy. “It’s gonna be a wet night folks. Find some place warm and dry to hole up with someone you love.”

Brady took the exit ramp off Interstate 30, heading for the parking lot of Toad’s Big Rig Truck Stop on the outskirts of Dallas. His headlights caught a lone figure huddled on the road shoulder, thumb outstretched. Automatically, his hand went to his occipital bone.

No dice.

Lightning flashed. Thunder crashed. Rain slashed. The hitchhiker shivered violently.

Sorry about your luck, fella.

The eighteen-wheeler in front of Brady splashed a deluge of water over the skinny stranger. Small, vulnerable. Been there. Done that. Lived through it. The fella raised his face and in a flash of fresh lightning, from underneath the hooded sweatshirt, he saw it wasn’t a guy at all, but a woman.

No, a girl actually. Most likely a runaway.

Don’t do it.

Trampas, his Heinz fifty-seven mutt—who come to think of it, was a hitchhiker of sorts as well—peered out the window at the dark night and whimpered from the back seat. A year ago, Brady had found the starving puppy, flea bitten and tick ridden, on a long stretch of empty road in the Sonoran desert.

He was already driving past her. He’d almost made it. Then hell, if he didn’t glance back and meet the girl’s eyes.

“Please,” she mouthed.

Aw, shit.

He didn’t mean to do it. Hadn’t planned on doing it, but the next thing he knew he was slowing down and pulling over. And that’s when he broke rule number four.

Avoid damsels in distress.

That rule came to him courtesy of a short-skirted cowgirl broke down off Route 66 in Flagstaff. She thanked him for changing her flat by inviting him back to her place for a home-cooked meal and rocking hot sex, except she neglected to tell him she had a grizzly bear-sized husband with a high temper and a hammy fist.

Brady rubbed his jaw. He wasn’t going to give the runaway a ride. Just get her inside the building and out of the storm. Maybe buy her a meal if she was hungry. He would toss her a few bucks for one of the cheap “bunk and bath” motels attached to the truck stop and advise her against hitchhiking.

Meddling. That’s meddling in someone else’s business.

Yeah, and where would he be if Dutch Callahan hadn’t meddled in his life fourteen years ago?

Prison most likely. Or the bone orchard.

He hit the unlock button, knowing it was a bad idea, but doing it anyway. The hitchhiker ran for his truck. She was short enough so that he couldn’t see anything but the top of her head from his perch behind the wheel without peeping into the side view mirror, but he heard her fumble the door handle on the passenger side.

The howling wind snatched at the door, ripping it from her pale, trembling hand and throwing it wide open.

Brady glanced down.

The hitchhiker looked up.

Her eyes were a dusty gray, too large for her small, narrow face and she stared right into him as if she knew every thought that passed through his head, yet didn’t hold it against him.

He tried to take a deep breath, but to his alarm, discovered that he couldn’t.

For one brief moment, they dangled in suspended animation. Their gazes meshed, their futures strangely entwined.

Drive off!

Of course, he didn’t, couldn’t. Not with her standing there looking like a soaking wet fawn who just lost her mother to a hunter’s gun. But the impulse to run, Brady’s instinct to avoid complications at all costs, fisted around his spine and wouldn’t let go.

“Thank you for stopping,” she said in a voice as soft as lamb’s wool. Looped around her shoulder she carried an oversized satchel. “Your kindness is much appreciated.”

The breath he’d tried to draw finally filled his lungs with a swift whoosh of damp night air. He nodded.

Somehow, she managed to plant her feet on the running board, grab the door in her right hand and then swing up into the seat in one long, smooth, lady-like movement. Her satchel rustled as she tugged the heavy door closed behind her and with a solid click they were cocooned inside.

Alone.

Her scent, an intriguing combination of rain and Talcum powder and honey, filled the cab, vanquishing his own leather, horse and beef-jerky smell. The sweatshirt hoodie was tied down tight under her chin so that he couldn’t see her hair, but her eyebrows were starkly black in startling contrast to skin the color and texture of fresh cream. She possessed the cheekbones of a Swedish supermodel, as high and sharp and cool as the summit of Mount Everest, but in spite of that barrier of heartbreaking beauty, there was something about her that had him yearning to toss an arm around her shoulders and tell her everything was going to be okay. Maybe it was because she was so ethereal—pale and slender and wide-eyed.

She wore dark blue jeans with a sharp crease running down the front of the legs. Plain, brown, round-toed cowboy boots shod her petite feet. In spite of being drenched, both the jeans and boots looked brand new.

Trampas leaned over the seat, ran his nose along the back of her neck.

“Oh.” She startled, laughed. “Hello.” She reached out a hand to scratch the mutt behind his ear. He whimpered joyously. Attention hound.

“Down Trampas,” Brady commanded.

The dog snorted, but reluctantly settled, his tail thumping against the back seat.

The hitchhiker turned to snap her seatbelt into place, the satchel now clutched in her lap.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Brady said, his words hung like a curtain in the air between them, not making a lick of sense coming from a traveling man who draggled his home behind him.

She raised her head and met his gaze again. “I beg your pardon, sir?”

Speech eloped. Just ran right off with his brain. On closer inspection, her eyes weren’t simply gray, but loaded with tiny starbursts of sapphire blue. He motioned toward the gas pumps. “I was just…”

She canted her head, and studied him as if every word that spilled from his mouth was golden. “Yes?”

“Gonna get some gas.”

“That is acceptable.” She folded her hands over the satchel.

Huh? As if she were giving her permission? “And supper. I was gonna have supper.”

“Here?”

“Yes.”

“Then why did you stop to pick me up?”

Beats the hell out of me. “You looked cold. And wet. You looked cold and wet.”

“I am,” she confirmed. “Wet and cold.”

He reached over to turn on the heater, angling the air vents toward her. He had never turned on the heater in June in Texas. First time for everything. “Why didn’t you go inside the truck stop?”

She shrugged as if the gesture said it all.

“No money?”

Her slight smile plucked at him.

“You hungry?”

The shrug again, accompanied by a shy head tilt. She licked lips the color of red honeysuckle, and for no good reason at all, he thought of caramel—sweet, thick, chewy. If he kissed her, she would taste like caramel. He just knew it.

You’re not going to kiss her. Get that idea out of your head right now. You don’t need the hassle.

But the more Brady tried not to think about kissing her, the more her lips beckoned.

“You got a name?” he asked.

“Do you?”

“Brady. Brady Talmadge.” He put out a hand.

She looked at his palm as if shaking hands was an alien concept, then finally took it for a brief second, smirked like someone enjoying a private joke and said, “Annie.”

“No last name?”

She paused. “Coste.”

“Well, Annie Coste, you can join me inside for a meal, my treat or you can find yourself another ride and be on your way. It’s up to you.” Damn, he hoped she chose the latter option. She had trouble scribbled all over her. Yeah, so why had he broken his own rules? Because he was a sucker for doe-eyed damsels.

Sucker.

That was the operative word.

“I am hungry,” she admitted.

“Great,” he said.

Great as a busted axel. Why had he picked her up? Stupid. Glutton for punishment. Misguided sense of chivalry. Dumbass. What a total dumbass. What was wrong with him? But come on, how could he have left Bambi shivering by the roadside when some unscrupulous son-of-a-bitch could have given her a ride instead? Things had been humming along just dandy and now he was stuck with her. If he’d kept driving—which he couldn’t have because he was almost out of gas—he would be in Jubilee within ninety minutes. Jubilee. The closest thing he’d ever had to a real home. He didn’t want to take her there.

She’s not your problem. You can’t save everyone, Talmadge. It’s not like you’re a paragon yourself.

The thoughts loped through his head as he fueled his truck underneath the protective awning and put Trampas into the trailer. The dog curled up on his bed in the air-conditioned living area and gave him a look that said I like her.

“Only because she scratched your itch,” Brady grumbled and shut the door.

He climbed back inside, pulled the truck around the rear of the building with the semis and looked over at Annie. Raindrops still clung to her long eyelashes and the hoodie of her sweatshirt. Was it weird that her eyebrows were dark, but her eyelashes were light?

As they walked into the restaurant, the big red digital clock on the wall over the door flashed 9:15. The place was rowdy busy. A port in the storm. Truckers in baseball caps and cowboy hats lined the red and chrome swivel stools at the counter up front.

Several men craned their necks for a better look at Annie. Brady took a step closer toward her, rigging himself up in that “she’s-with-me” strut that came naturally to a cowboy in the company of a good-looking woman. The hum of voices and clang of silverware drifted to the vaulted rafters. The air smelled of diesel exhaust, chicken friend steak and yeast rolls.

Brady stood back to let Annie go in front of him.

She hesitated, resistance in her eyes as if uncertain how to proceed. C’mon. Surely she’d been in a truck stop before.

“This way.” He held out his arm as a guide and ushered her past the front counter on their left and the clear glass refrigeration units chock full of homemade pies, spread high with meringue, sitting on rotating shelves. She stopped to stare at the pies, as awestruck as a five-year-old.

“We’ll get some for dessert,” he said.

Her beaming smile heated him up like an electric blanket on a cold winter night. “Really?”

“You can have two slices if you like.” Brady escorted her past the “seat yourself” sign to an empty booth in the back of the room situated underneath the head of a mule deer buck.

Eyeing the taxidermied animal, she slid across the red vinyl seat, untying the string of her hoodie as she went and then she slipped the satchel from her shoulder. She cleaved to the thing like she had gold bars in it.

Brady secured the seat across from her.

She tugged off the hood revealing black hair chopped short and spiky. It looked as if she’d taken a pair of jagged-teethed pruning sheers and hacked it off herself, but he supposed it was probably some hip salon cut that cost a hundred bucks or more. The harsh hairstyle, paired with her wide gray-blue eyes and pale skin gave her the appearance of an anime cartoon heroine—waifish and innocent—accentuating the whole damsel in distress thing.

Next, she wrestled out of the sweatshirt, revealing a simple white blouse with capped sleeves, showing off toned arms that knew their way around a bicep curl. She was not the typical truck stop hitchhiker. No piercings (not even her ears), no tats (at least none he could see), no skimpy, too-tight clothing flaunting too big breasts. She was like a daisy sprung fresh in the garden. No, that was too common. Not a garden daisy, but a rare buttercup growing on a mountaintop. Sunny, sweet, lustrous. Unexpected. Special.

Special?

What the hell? Where was that coming from?

If he were smart, he pass her twenty bucks, get up and walk out. Clearly, he was not smart because instead of doing that, he took off his straw Stetson, settled it on the bench seat beside him and ran a hand through his hair.

The right side of the booth butted up against a thick, rain-painted plate glass window. Outside the vapor lamps glowed ghostly in the rumbling storm. Inside, someone with a sense of humor set the jukebox playing “Let it Rain” by David Nail.

Annie harvested a napkin from the red and chrome dispenser on the table and started polishing the Formica surface, whisking away crumbs left behind from a slapdash busboy’s one swipe attempt at cleaning the tabletop.

A waitress, dressed in a retro pink dress with a white bib apron and battered sneakers, bopped over with two menus tucked under one arm and two glasses of water in her hands. “Here y’all go,” she said. “I’m Heather and I’ll be back in a minute to take your order.” Then off she went.

Brady shifted his attention back to Annie, her head was bowed over the menu. One dainty finger slid down the list of offerings.

“What’s chili?” she asked, raising her head to meet his gaze.

He startled again, just as he had when she climbed into his truck. Something about those eyes unraveled him in a way he’d never been unraveled and Brady was no stranger to peering into the eyes of gorgeous women. “You’ve never eaten chili?”

She shook her head.

“You’re not from Texas.”

“How do you know?”

“Texans cut their baby teeth on chili.”

“I am not from Texas,” she admitted.

“Where you from?”

She rested one hand on the satchel beside her. “What is chili exactly?”

“It’s ground or shredded beef cooked in a tomato based sauce.”

“And served cold?”

“No. It’s hot. Both temperature and spice wise.”

She looked puzzled. “If it is hot, then why do they call it chili?”

Something was decidedly off about this one. “Dunno. Sarcasm maybe?”

“Sarcasm?”

“They don’t have sarcasm where you’re from?”

“May we get some?” she asked.

“Get what?” Brady asked, his mind rambling to all possible meanings of the phrase get some. “Sarcasm?”

“Chili.”

“Okay,” he said, just like that. So much for rule number three.

Never order chili at a truck stop.

That rule was a self-evident. No unsavory details needed, but when the waitress came back, Brady handed her the menus. “Two bowls of chili. I’ll have a Coors and the lady wants…”

“Might I have a cup of tea?” Annie asked.

“You mean hot tea?” The waitress gave her a strange look. Probably not too many truckers ordered hot tea.

“Yes, please. Thank you.” Annie sat like she had a ruler implanted in her spine. Straight. Proper. “Earl Grey if it is available.”

“I’ll see what we got.” The waitress pivoted and scooted off.

Annie hugged herself, grinned. “This is so enjoyable.”

Brady cocked his head, trying to detect some kind of accent, but her speech was as plain as a Midwest newscaster. Sometimes her word choice was a little formal, a little stiff, which didn’t quite jive. Who was she? Her inscrutable gray-blue eyes revealed no secrets. “What is?”

“Ordering chili in a truck stop with a real live cowboy.”

“Are you from another country?”

“Are you?” The woman had a tendency to answer a question with a question.

“No,” he said.

She spread her hands, delicate and smooth, against the Formica tabletop in a prim gesture. She wore no rings, no bracelets. No jewelry at all. Her nails were short and painted with clear polish. Simple. Understated. Elegant. No adornments needed. “And there you have it.”

What was she talking about? He felt as if he’d missed a step or two in the conversation. She looked so young. Not a single wrinkle on her face. No blemishes either. Flawless complexion.

“How old are you?” he asked. What if she was underage? This could be the beginning of a major snafu.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-nine.”

“I’m twenty-four.”

“Naw.” He shook his head. “You can’t be twenty-four. I’d say twenty at most.”

She raised both palms out from her head, shrugged. “It is true.”

“You have some great genetics.”

She glanced around the room at the other diners. “This place is quite interesting.”

Interesting? Furrowing his brow, Brady followed her gaze. Nothing special as far as he could see. Asking her where she was from wasn’t getting him anywhere. Clearly she didn’t want to talk about her past or what she was running from. He understood that impulse. He tried a different track. “Where are you going?”

“Where are you going?”

“Jubilee.”

“Where is Jubilee?”

Dammit, here she was doing it again, running the conversation in circles. “About eighty miles southwest of here.”

“Is that where you live?”

“No.”

“Why are you going there?”

“A job.”

“What kind of job?”

“I work with horses.”

“You are an equine veterinarian?”

“Not exactly.”

“What exactly?”

“You could be a reporter, you know, with all those questions. Are you a reporter?”

“No, I am just naturally curious about people,” she said quickly. “What exactly?”

“I work with horses who’ve been emotionally traumatized.”

“Oh!” She broke into a big smile. “Like the Horse Whisperer in that dramatic novel by Nicholas Evans.”

“It’s not as glamorous as Robert Redford made it out to be in the movie, but yes, I do rehabilitate horses who’ve been injured or harmed or developed phobias.”

“How did you get started?”

“I just sort of fell into it.”

“Is it a difficult job?”

“Not in from my point of view. But horses are sensitive, highly intuitive animals. You have to know how to handle them.”

“How is that?”

“With a gentle hand and a loving heart.”

“I like that.” She leaned forward. “What an exciting profession.”

“It’s just what I do.” He paused. “But I do love it.”

“Where do you live when you are not healing horses?”

“In my trailer.”

Sadness flickered across her face. “You do not have a home? You are a homeless person? I have never met a homeless person. Is it truly terrible? Being without a home?”

Beam me up Scotty. I don’t know what planet I’ve landed on, but the hitchhikers in these parts are freaking nuts. “I live in my trailer. That’s my home.”

“Traveling from town to town?”

“Living on the road is the ultimate freedom. Footloose and fancy free. I can go anywhere I want, any time I want to go. No limitations. No expectations.”

“I cannot imagine such circumstances.”

“No roots, nothing holding me back.”

Annie pressed the fingertips of both hands against her lips. “It sounds so sad.”

Brady blinked. Something dark and uncomfortable slithered across the back of his mind. Something he couldn’t capture or name, but it slithered all the same. Swift and heavy, scraping his brain. “What’s so horrible about freedom?”

“It is lonely.”

“No, no. Not lonely at all. I have my dog, Trampas, and friends all over the country and there’s the horses and…” he trailed off, trying to think of all the wonderful things about his life.

“No one special,” she finished for him.

Brady snorted. “Hey, if you’re so happy and your life is choked with special people, what are you doing hitchhiking in the rain on a Friday night?”

She pulled herself up on the edge of her seat and looked down her nose in a stately expression of the highborn. “I am out for an adventure.”

“Yeah? Got away from the zookeeper did you?” Now, that was tacky. He shouldn’t have said it, but his gut poked at him.

“Pardon me?” The regal expression vanished and the vulnerable girlishness was back—hurt, disappointed.

Brady shook his head. “Never mind.”

Thankfully, the waitress showed up, interrupting the weird conversation. “Toad’s Chili twice.” She sat two blue bowls of steaming cinnamon-colored chili, swimming in the glistening grease of too much cheddar cheese, in front of them. She plunked down Brady’s beer with barely any foam, and then she slid a small metal pitcher of hot water in front of Annie, along with a tea bag. “No Earl Gray. All we got is orange pekoe.”

“Thank you.” Annie graced the waitress with a smile as if bestowing a title upon her. “May I have an additional spoon, please?”

“Sure thing.” The waitress grabbed an extra spoon for her.

Brady peered into his bowl and accepted his fate. That’s what you got when you broke rules. He dug into the chili. Just as he feared, it was deceptively delicious.

He tried to blank his mind and focus on eating, but then the satchel on the seat beside Annie moved. Huh? Was he seeing things? He narrowed his eyes and noticed the sides of the satchel were made of braided mesh.

The satchel moved again.

“Whoa!” Brady jumped. Which wasn’t like him. Usually he was laidback, not the least bit jumpy, but things just kept getting weirder.

Annie looked up. “What is it?”

He pointed. “Your bag moved. Twice.”

“Oh.” She put a dab of chili on the end of her spoon and reached for the satchel.

A little brown head popped from the side corner of the bag, and a tiny black button nose twitched.

“What the hell is…that?”

Annie laid a finger to her lips. “Shh, this is Lady Astor. My best friend in the whole world.”

Shiny black eyes fixed on him.

“Seriously? That’s a dog?”

“Lady Astor is a Yorkshire terrier. She is one year old and she weighs six pounds.” The Yorkie lapped chili from Annie’s spoon.

“You brought her with you on Annie’s Big Adventure?”

“Of course, I could not, in all good conscience, leave her at the pal…” She trailed off, got a strange look on her face and finished with, “leave her home alone.”

“Ever heard of a kennel?” Did they have those in whatever la-la land she was from?

Annie glared as if he suggested she run the dog through a blender.

“Hey, you’re the one who carries her around in a satchel.”

A distraught furrow creased her brow. “She is comfortable in it. The mesh sides let air get in. It keeps her dry in the rain and I bought the most expensive one they had and—”

He raised a palm. “You don’t have to justify it to me.”

“Do you really think it is a bad thing that I keep her in a satchel?” She worried a paper napkin between her fingers.

“Why do you care what I think?”

“I am not…” She shut her mouth.

“You’re not what?”

She tilted her head back gave him that condescending glare again. “Disregard that.”

“C’mon, you can tell me.” Brady hated secrets. Had since he was a kid and he’d learned—well, there was no point going there—but whenever he was around someone who was obviously hiding something, he couldn’t resist nudging for full disclosure. He’d discovered a lot of unexpected things about people that way. “It’s not like you’re ever going to see me again. Your secret is safe with me.”

“I have no secret,” she insisted, but her earlobes pinked and she did not meet his gaze.

“None? Nothing? Not even a tiny white lie you want to confess?”

Her eyes widened and she seemed even paler than before. Did the woman ever go out in the sun? “No.”

Brady’s lie-o-meter went off. Big time. He did not know who or what Annie Coste was, but she spelled complication in capital letters.

Lady Astor finished licking the spoon, and then burrowed back into the satchel. She did seem to like it in there.

Annie picked up the second spoon that the waitress had brought her and daintily dipped it into the chili. Brady couldn’t help watching her bring the curved stainless steel up to her full pink lips. When they finished their meal, they ordered banana cream pie and Annie attacked it with gusto.

“I’m not allowed to eat like this at home.” She moaned a soft sound of pleasure and put a hand to her stomach.

“Allowed to?”

She ignored that, flicked her tongue out to lick a spot of frothy meringue from her upper lip, laughed. It was an airy sound that had real joy behind it, a gleeful laugh that embraced life in a hard hug. If he never saw her again, he would always remember the sound of her laughter. Because it sounded like freedom.

For some reason, just hearing her laugh made him laugh and they both sat there underneath the mule deer, the smell of grease in the air, the taste of banana cream pie on their tongues, laughing and looking at each and having a high old time together. It was the most fun he’d ever had at a truck stop, bar none.

Slowly, her laughter drained away.

So did his.

They were left with just the looking.

Mesmerized, he pulled a palm down over his mouth. He couldn’t figure out what compelled him more, his attraction to her or his curiosity about her.

The healthy, masculine part of him was already toying with the idea of seducing her. She was sexy in an unusual way and it had been months since he’d taken pleasure in the company of a willing woman. But his gut was saying back off. Something wasn’t right. All was not as it seemed.

To distract himself, he turned and peered out the window. The rain was still washing down in angry torrents. Through the dark night, a long black limousine emerged and pulled up to the gas pumps.

“Now there’s a sight you don’t see every day at a truck stop in this neck of the woods unless it’s prom night,” Brady said. “But prom was two weeks ago. Unless it’s a school with a late prom.”

“What is that?” Annie asked in her slightly prissy, nondescript tone.

It drove him nuts that she had no birthplace-identifying accent. Who was she? Where was she from?

“Limo.”

The chauffer got out to fuel the vehicle. The rear door opened and two other men emerged. They were dressed in expensive suits tailored to perfectly fit their bodies. One man was tall, the other squat and they both wore sunglasses at night and jaunty fedoras pulled down low over their foreheads.

Who were these guys? Mobsters? Secret Service? The Blues Brothers?

Then he remembered that former President Franklin Glover’s daughter, Echo, was getting married this weekend and the president’s ranch, where the nuptials were being held, wasn’t far from here. It had been all over the radio for days.

Most likely they were Secret Service. But in a limo? He would have expected a black Cadillac Escalade with bulletproof glass.

Brady felt movement beside him, turned his head to see Annie had gotten up to come peer over his shoulder. He swung his gaze back to the window. Her warm breath tickled the hairs on the nape of his neck.

A fierce craving hammered down his spine to his groin. He swallowed hard, fighting off the reaction. Yes, okay, she got a rise out of him, but he did not have to do anything about it. In fact, a smart guy would get the hell out of here as fast as possible. Unfortunately, Brady had never been particular smart when it came to women. He always seemed to go for the troublesome ones.

The two guys from the limo broke into a trot, rushing to get out of the rain and headed for the front door of the restaurant.

Annie made a noise of distress.

Brady jerked his head back in her direction.

She stood clutching his cowboy hat in her hands, her head raised expectantly. “May I sit here?”

“Um…sure.”

She set his straw Stetson on the table and sank down beside him, her gaze coddling his. She did not look out the window. Did not glance around the room. Her eyes were on him and him alone.

Unnerved, he scooted as far across the seat as he could, his shoulder bumping up against the cool glass window.

At that moment, The Blues Brother came into the seat-yourself dining area, scanning the room as if searching for someone.

Annie leaned in closer.

There was nowhere else for Brady to go. This development took him completely by surprise. He didn’t know if he liked it or not.

“You are very handsome,” she said.

“Um…okay.”

“I want to kiss you.”

Stunned, he blinked. “Huh?”

“Kiss me.”

“What?” Had he heard her correctly?

“Kiss me.”

The Blues Brothers were talking to Heather, the waitress.

Do not kiss her. Something is not right. Warning! Whatever you do, do not kiss her!

“Kiss me now!” She demanded and puckered those honeysuckle lips.

He held up a palm like a stop sign. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t like being bossed around.”

“Please,” she wheedled.

“Well, when you put it like that,” he drawled. “No.”

“You don’t think I’m desirable.” She reached out to stroke his chin with an index finger. He caught a whiff of her talcum powder scent.

“Quite the contrary.”

“So why not?”

Brady peered into those big gray-blue eyes and he was a goner. Ah shit. What the hell? Why not? Illogically, he pulled her into his arms and proceeded to dismantle rule number two.

Always trust your gut.

Her lips were heated satin, melting Brady’s self-control like cotton candy dunked in hot soda pop. She tangled her slender arms around his neck tugging him closer, but she did not loosen her jaw.

Mystified, he lightly rested the tip of his tongue against her bottom lip. Was she going to let him in?

“Hmm, mmm.” Annie increased the pressure of the kiss, but she did not part her teeth.

Okay, this was the first time he’d ever had a woman beg him to kiss her and then not let him fully do the job. Brady didn’t like to brag, but he knew he was a good kisser. Many a woman had told him so.

Kissing was his second favorite part of lovemaking. He loved to taste things. Explore. Savor. Push limits. And he’d been right. Annie did taste like caramel. He wanted more.

She loosened her arms around his neck, broke the lip lock, rested her forehead on his, and stared him straight in the eyes. “Are they still there?’ she whispered.

“Who?”

“The men in the suits and fedoras.”

Once more, Brady shifted his gaze to the dining room. The Blues Brothers were gone. He glanced back at Annie. Took in her glistening lips. Inhaled her innocent fragrance. Heard her soft intake of breath.

Right then and there, he trifled with his number one rule for leading an uncomplicated life. The rule that had kept him safe, satisfied, and single for twenty-nine years. The rule he was about to shatter into a million little pieces.

Never tell a lie.

“They’re still here,” he said. “You better keep kissing me.”