NICK BRADEN KNEW better than to mess with trouble.
As an elite freestyle horse trainer and showman, he had buckle bunnies at his beck and call. So why the hell was he hanging out in Justus “JJ” Jericho’s pub in Oak Falls, Virginia, when he could be back home in Pleasant Hill, Maryland, where one phone call could scratch that itch with no ramifications?
He took a swig of his beer, his gaze drifting to the answer, who was wiggling her fine ass on the dance floor in skimpy cutoffs and cowgirl boots. Welcome to Oak Falls, Virginia, home to horse farms, midnight rodeos, and the hottest risk-taking, Daisy Duke–wearing cowgirl on the planet, Trixie Fucking Jericho. The way his close friend made him feel was Trouble with a capital T.
“Hey, Nick, are you finally going to seal the deal or what?” Shane asked.
Nick dragged his eyes away from Trixie, and as cheers filtered in from the mechanical bull room, the crowded bar and the band came back into focus, and he realized he’d zoned out watching her again. Jeb and Shane Jericho, two of Trixie’s four older brothers, flanked him at the bar. Her brother JJ was bartending, and Trace was at home with his new wife and baby girl. Nick looked at his buddies, trying to remember what they’d asked. Like him, the Jericho men were tall, dark, powerfully built, and used to working their fingers to the bone. Shane, Trace, and Trixie ran their family’s cattle and horse ranch, and Jeb was a furniture maker and owned a shop in town.
“Sorry, man,” Nick said. “What was the question?”
“I’m right with you, bro.” Jeb lifted his chin in the direction of the band. “It’s easy to get caught up in Sable strutting her stuff onstage in those tight jeans, isn’t it? Mm-mm. She just keeps getting hotter.”
Sable Montgomery was a mechanic by day and the lead guitarist and singer in the band Surge by night. The tall, stacked brunette was loaded with enough snark to bury a man. Nick liked a fine, challenging woman, but Sable did nothing for him, unlike sharp-tongued Trixie, who could drop a weaker man to his knees with a single sentence.
“Gotta love ladies’ night,” Shane said, making eyes at a buxom blonde a few feet away.
“Sure,” Nick said halfheartedly, taking another pull of his beer. The joke around town was that the Jericho men could finesse the wildness out of a horse as well as they could charm the panties off a woman. What no one was stupid enough to say out loud was that Trixie possessed the same abilities toward men. Like metal to a magnet, his eyes found Trixie again. Her wild dark mane swung over her shoulders. Nick’s fingers curled with the desire to be buried in that hair. Fuck. He turned around and leaned on the bar before his buddies noticed him leering at their sister.
“So, are you going to make an offer on the horse you came to check out?” Shane asked, his eyes drifting back to the blonde. “You’ve been here twice in the last few weeks to see it.”
“Right, the horse. Nah. I’m not buying it.” Nick had come to Oak Falls to check out that horse, but he had no idea why he was still there. It wasn’t like he was going to seal any deal with Trixie, and not just because there was an unspoken rule between guys about not going after their buddies’ younger sisters. He and Trixie had been friends for years. She had been taking part in the same running, biking, and swimming races as Nick’s younger brother Graham and their cousin Ty since she was a teenager. But over the last few years, she and Nick had become incredibly close friends. He could be a gruff bastard, and she was one of the few women who understood his die-hard work ethic, his moods, and his connection to his animals. She was the unique combination of smart, confident cowgirl, badass thrill seeker, and sweet, caring woman.
It was that last part that was causing him the most trouble lately.
They’d become so close that he found himself thinking about her when she wasn’t around, which was too damn often. They saw each other five or six times a year when he was down her way for work or family events, or when she’d come through Maryland to pick up horses, deliver cattle, take part in a race, or when she just needed a break from Oak Falls. As the second oldest of six siblings, Nick understood that need to get away. He loved his close-knit family and their quaint hometown, but he knew how suffocating both could be.
Trixie stayed with Nick when she was in town, though she spent time hanging out with his younger sister, Jillian. Jillian was a clothing designer and a night owl, and like any good rancher worth her salt, Trixie was up with the sun. When Trixie had first come to him four or five years ago, asking if she could stay at his place instead of Jillian’s, it was a no-brainer for him to say yes, even though he liked his solitude. He was a natural protector, and Trixie was like family. It had taken some getting used to, having another person in his house, much less a beautiful woman. But Trixie wasn’t like most women, fussing with their hair and makeup and talking about nonsense. She didn’t mind getting her hands dirty and always pitched in to help around the ranch without being asked. Luckily, she also enjoyed giving him hell and telling him he was doing things wrong. If there was one thing Nick hated, it was being told what to do. It hadn’t taken much effort in those early years to slide her into an off-limits category.
At least until a little more than a year ago, when Nick and Jillian had taken an impromptu trip to Colorado under the guise of watching Graham and Ty cross the finish line of the Children’s Charity Mad Prix, a five-day race through the Colorado Mountains. They’d really gone to check up on their oldest brother, Beau, who had been having a hard time. Beau had been doing renovations at the Sterling House, where the awards banquet was taking place and the contestants were staying. Trixie had also taken part in the race, and a late-night celebration had led to too much tequila and an unforgettable evening that had haunted him ever since.
She’d looked stunning that night in a skintight minidress and sky-high heels, drawing the attention of most of the single guys in the room, including their friend Jon Butterscotch, a cocky doctor who had also competed in the Mad Prix. Jon had been all over Trixie, and like a guard dog, Nick had been on full alert well before she’d dragged him to the bar as her protector. I need you to keep me from doing something stupid, like body shots. That thought had seared erotic images into his mind, which should have clued him in to the switch she was flicking inside him. She and the other girls had a great time. They had all done too many shots, but they were safe in the Sterling House.
Safe was a relative term, because it turned out that he hadn’t been safe from whatever spell Trixie had been casting on him that night. When he’d walked her back to her room, she’d hung all over him, rubbing her soft curves against his hard frame as she ran her fingers through his hair, down his arms, and over his chest, laughing and talking like she hadn’t even realized she was doing it. Meanwhile, her every touch sent bolts of heat straight to his groin, as if she’d uncapped a reservoir of desire. Trixie kept trying to go back to the bar, and he’d had to redirect her down the hall so many times, he’d finally swept her into his arms and carried her to her suite. Their eyes had connected for a split second with the sizzling heat of the Sahara and the wickedness fantasies are made of. He’d never forget the sultry sound of her voice as she’d wrapped her arms around his neck and said, My very own Prince Charming. He’d laughed at that, because after having had her hands all over him, and with her gorgeous body in his arms, his thoughts made him feel more like the hungry wolf.
But there must have been something even bigger than lust at play that night.
Once he’d gotten her into her suite, she’d continued trying to coerce him into going back to the bar. I just want to have fun. A few more minutes? Come on, Nick, don’t be a party pooper. Let’s go have fun together. Her speech had slurred, and she could barely walk without stumbling. She’d had her fun. More fun than he’d approved of, but while he watched out for her, Trixie was her own woman, and she liked to be told what to do about as much as he did. But there was no way he’d let her go back to the bar and do something she might regret. Instead, he’d put her to bed, took off her heels, and since she’d continued in her sleepy, drunken state to try to get up and leave the room, he’d stayed in the chair beside her bed until morning, slipping out the door before she’d woken up.
But the damage had already been done.
Seeing his take-charge friend, who took life by the horns and was always in control, let her guard down had changed him. He’d protected family and friends for as long as he could remember. But as he’d watched over her that night, the feelings that had settled into him like fog following summer rain were unlike anything he’d ever felt. He could no longer think of Trixie Jericho without remembering the feel of her hanging on him, the eagerness of her touch, the sweetness of her breath, and the perfectness of her in his arms, or those adorable murmurs and smiles she’d made in her sleep. He’d craved the sight of her ever since, wanting to take care of her, and worse, to feel her legs wrapped around his neck as he devoured her and around his waist as he buried himself eight inches deep.
Trixie Jericho was the worst kind of trouble, and she didn’t even know it.
The morning after the banquet, he realized that she hadn’t known he’d stayed with her that night. She’d apologized for getting drunk and had thanked him for walking her back to her room. When she’d said, For all your bullheaded arrogance, it’s that big ol’ heart that’s going to get you in trouble one day, she’d had no idea how true those words were.
But he knew better than to play with dynamite. Because underneath all her sass and snark were dreams of a white wedding. Nick wasn’t in the market for a wife. Even if he was, while Trixie liked getting away from her hometown to gain a little breathing room, she was, and would always be, a daddy’s girl, a Jericho rancher born and bred, and a forever Oak Falls, Virginia, resident—and Nick was never going to move away from Pleasant Hill, Maryland.
If only he could shake the need to be near her.
TRIXIE WONDERED WHAT her ridiculously hot and too bullheaded for his own good friend Nick Braden and her brothers were talking about now. She loved her brothers, but while they supported her dreams, that support came with a side of amusement, and she was sick of not being taken seriously. Had they told Nick her plans to open a miniature therapy horse business? At least she knew he wasn’t laughing at it. Nick always took Trixie—and everything about ranching—seriously, and he wasn’t a laugher. He was gruff, smart, and honest to a fault. He also loved his family as much as she loved hers, all of which was why she believed he was her perfect match. But since he didn’t see her the way she saw him, he’d become the man she compared every other guy to.
Her friend Lindsay shimmied closer, her blond hair swinging over her shoulders. “Girl, you’re going to burn a hole in that big-muscled cowboy’s back.”
She and Lindsay had grown up together, along with every other person around their age in Oak Falls. Their hometown was about as big as a fist. If she tripped on the sidewalk, the whole town knew it by nightfall. But Trixie had a handful of close friends she trusted to keep her secrets, like her forever crush on Nick Braden, and Lindsay was at the top of that list.
Trixie stole a glance at Nick. “I’d need laser vision to get through his armor.”
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