Playwright Shauna Bradford pulled her gold Honda through the gravel and came to a halt at the wooden gate to the ranch. The place couldn’t possibly be closed. She had a reservation and the receipt to prove it. Looking at the wrought-iron sign arcing over the gate, she read Rocking C Ranch. This was it all right. Where was everybody? For the first time in her life she got to go on vacation and looked forward to being pampered for a change, and it turned out the place was closed?
Getting out of her car, she went to the gate’s padlock and gave it a yank. To her amazement, it came undone. It had been set to look locked, but it hadn’t been pressed together. Still, this was hardly a warm welcome to new vacationers! She pushed the gate open, got back into her car, and drove down a winding dirt road until she came to a parking lot next to fieldstone bungalows, an old hotel, a corralled area—this was more like it!
Looking at the main hotel building, she figured there would be a strong cowboy around here somewhere who could take care of her bags. She left them in her trunk and walked across the parking lot, gazing at the open prairie and hill country brush. Breathing deeply, the fragrance of juniper and prairie grasses greeted her. Nestled in Canyon Creek, Texas, the Rocking C Ranch had the pastoral quality of an old-world ranch and a great pool and hot tub area, but where were the people?
“Hello!” she called toward the main building. “Is anyone here?”
The sound of hooves clopping made her spin around and her eyes went to a man on a horse in the corralled area, behind a split rail fence. Oh, yes, indeed. Somebody was here. She couldn’t miss that one. Those dark curls, that gleaming chest, and look at his muscles working as he guided his horse. His profile in the distance reminded Shauna of Brandon, her first love. Hell, her only love, not that it had gone anywhere.
Then the cowboy turned toward her, and she walked closer to the fence to get a better look. What fabulous strong legs that gripped and guided the skittish animal, and those glorious broad shoulders. He spoke in low, soothing tones to the horse, patting and reassuring it. She stared, entranced. She had to meet him. If all of the ruggedly handsome cowboys she got to be with for the next two weeks looked like this, she’d have a great time on this little working vacation!
“Cowboy! Oh, cowboy!” she called out to him, waving. Maybe he would carry her bags for her. They did that at resorts.
His horse startled at the sound of her call, jumping and twisting abruptly, causing the cowboy to teeter sideways in the saddle. He adjusted quickly, glanced at her from under his hat, then dismounted the spooked horse, holding its reins and reassuring it. He looked over at Shauna and held up one index finger indicating her to wait a moment. Walking the horse to the rail, he released its bridle and bit and let it go. She watched his muscled torso as he strode over to her, his face shadowed by his hat. “Can I help you?”
Oh, he could help her any time. Shauna gave him a broad smile, smoothing her clingy coral top beneath her open white blouse. She hoped her thrift store attire was well put together enough to give her a sophisticated, southwestern flair. The genuine Italian leather boots with four-inch heels had been an especially good find. She extended her hand, trying to exude confidence. “Hi, I’m Shauna Bradford, just checking in for a couple of weeks. Can you help me with my bags?”
He looked at her a moment, his expression not revealing his thoughts, and lightly shook her hand. “New guest check-in begins tomorrow,” he rumbled in his baritone drawl.
Shauna blinked. “What? No, I’m sure I was supposed to arrive today. I made reservations weeks ago. Come get my bags from my trunk and meet me at the front desk.” Shauna ordered, all business as she beeped her trunk open. In college, her professors taught her that being assertive in life gets you results. She was not going to miss out on any of her hard-earned first vacation! “I’m guessing it’s in that main building? Get the proprietor so we can straighten this out.”
“Yes, ma’am, princess,” he replied. He ducked between the fence rails and followed her to her car.
Did she detect a note of sarcasm? Maybe, but he went to her trunk and retrieved her luggage. The few times she’d been out of Dallas, she’d always tended her own bags. She enjoyed the view as he pulled her suitcases from the trunk. God almighty, look at those back muscles, and that ass. Serious eye candy!
He nodded toward the hotel lodge, and Shauna walked to the flagstone sidewalk and up a ramp to a broad front porch lined with rocking chairs. Rocking C Ranch. Funny. She stopped at the front door, waiting for him to open it. He shifted both of her bags to one hand, pulled the handle, and nodded her inside. A build like that, and he was a gentleman, too. Nice. She stepped in and looked around.
The scents of leather and cedar greeted her in the large lobby area. The Old West flavor showed in the vaulted ceilings and bare support beams. There were comfortable leather sofas and chairs all around, a small boutique area with postcards and Rocking C Ranch shirts for sale. Across a wide hall was a tall desk, then another next to it that was set up on a lower level, with a ramp leading up to it.
There was nobody at either desk. What kind of place was this? Her first actual destination vacation, and so far, it looked like those dude ranch ads had been misleading. She dinged the bell on the taller desk, tapping her foot. “Where is the proprietor?”
The cowboy set her bags down, said, “I’ll get him,” and walked through a door behind the front counter that led into an office area. He came back seconds later hatless, buttoning a shirt and stepping behind the taller front desk. He clicked on his computer and looked at Shauna with the most arresting golden-hazel eyes she’d ever seen. “Now, Miss Bradford, my name is Levi Cassidy, and I’m the proprietor here. How can I help you?”
She couldn’t believe this guy owned the place—she guessed him at thirty something. And now he knew she’d thought he was just a ranch hand. Good move, Shauna! Way to embarrass yourself in front of the cowboy you want to impress. And oh my, but he was gorgeous. The ruggedly handsome face, those eyes, and the dark curls. She just wanted to run her fingers through them.
“I’m so sorry!” Shauna said. “I’m a playwright in from Dallas for a couple of weeks. I made the reservation a long time ago, under Shauna Bradford.” She dug through her purse, but carefully. She’d had a coupon for a half-off manicure and treated herself to her first professional nail polish job in honor of her vacation. There were even little howling coyotes on her thumbnails. She didn’t want to nick it. Where did she leave that receipt? He typed her name into his computer and accessed her reservation.
Her phone rang, and she looked at the caller ID. “Excuse me a moment, Levi. I need to get this while you sort out my reservation.” she said, and answered her phone. “Hi, Roger.”
She and Roger had been on two dates that were nice… fine… but there was no spark, and she had the feeling he wanted to get serious.
“Hey, Shauna! I was wondering what you’re doing next weekend.” Roger opened.
Shauna took a deep breath, turned her back to Levi and said, “Actually, I’m out of town right now, but I’m glad you called—” Another beep occurred on her phone, and Kent was trying to get a hold of her. “Sorry, Roger, I have to take this call. Can you hold a minute for me?”
“Sure,” Roger replied uncertainly.
“Thanks.” She clicked over. “Hey! What’s up?”
“I’m in town this weekend. You want to get together? The usual place at the Hyatt Regency,” Kent said.
“So sorry, I can’t. I’m out of town this weekend.” Pity. Kent was fun.
“Business or pleasure?” he asked.
“Both. I’m at a dude ranch in the hill country, doing research for a play I’m writing.”
“Sounds like fun. I didn’t think you were the dude ranch type,” Kent said.
Dude ranch type? What was that supposed to mean? “I’m an opportunist. This is a tax-deductible opportunity,” she quipped. Then she changed the subject. “When will you be in town again?”
“It’ll be a few weeks.” There was regret in his voice.
“Let’s shoot for next time,” Shauna told him. “See you in a few weeks?”
“Sounds good, sexy lady. Over and out.” Kent hung up.
She clicked back over to Roger. “Hey, Rog… listen, I’ve enjoyed our time together, but I’m not ready to take anything to another level. It’s not you, it’s me. I just need my space right now—can you understand? I hope we can still be friends.” Shauna cringed inwardly at the huge amount of clichés she had just heaped upon Roger.
“Uh, wow. Yeah, sure. So… can I still call you?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. “I’ve really got to go. Talk to you soon.” She hung up and faced Levi again, smiling up at him. “Sorry about that.”
“Too many cookies in the cookie jar?” he grinned back. She ignored his comment and continued rummaging through her purse until she found her receipt. He gazed at the computer screen, “Miss Shauna Bradford… slated to arrive Monday, August sixth.”
Shauna’s brow creased. “What? But I was sure…” She checked her receipt, and sure enough, Monday, August sixth. “Oh, look at that. I really thought I was supposed to be here today. I must have entered it into my phone wrong. But it’s like a Bed and Breakfast, right? And clearly lots of vacancies. So you can just add the extra day to my bill.”
His eyes went heavenward a moment as if beseeching help, and he seemed to force a smile. “Actually, it’s a working ranch, and our previous guests just left yesterday. Rooms are not ready yet. But I’ll see what we can do.” He typed a few notes into her account, then told her, “I see you booked the Belle Starr cabin. Why don’t you go have a snack in our lounge area while I get your room set up for you?”
“Thank you, Levi. I appreciate that. Is there a powder room where I can freshen up?”
Levi nodded his head, indicating a ladies’ room on the left. She heard him sigh as she headed toward it. Was he checking her out? She knew that years of gymnastics had given her a body that drew attention. She put an extra bit of sway into her hips just in case he was watching. She’d certainly gotten an eyeful of him. Yes, indeed.
Levi had seen thousands of guests, but he had to give it to Miss Bradford—that little princess had managed to get under his skin three times in the first five minutes he knew her.
She’d interrupted his work. Still, he’d carried her bags for her, and when she got to the front door even though she carried nothing, she’d paused to wait for him to open it for her. That stuck in his craw some. He’d bit back the temptation to bow to her and say, “After you, princess,” as she entered. She’d whisked by him, her little backside swaying beneath tight jeans as she strutted past. He wanted to give that bottom a swat as he followed her to the counter. Miss High and Mighty!
Why were the pretty ones always such a handful? He took in her glossy black hair that fell almost to that pert behind, and the way her tight jeans clung to those curves, running his eyes down her shapely legs to those ridiculous high-heeled boots. Was she putting a little extra wiggle in her step just for him? That was quite a hitch in her get-along.
When she returned from the bathroom, Levi saw her to the lounge area where Max, his head chef, had finished restocking the bar and was about to leave for his night off. Max took over the care and feeding of the Rocking C’s newest guest. Then Levi went to the linen area to grab fresh sheets and towels for the Belle Starr room and put them on the cleaning cart. He added her luggage and headed out the front door to prep the room for his unexpected guest.
When he was finished, Levi headed back to put away the cleaning supplies. In the dining hall he heard Max and Shauna talking and laughing.
Max put on his John Wayne accent to ask, “And does the little lady want a sarsaparilla?”
Replying with a southern belle accent, Shauna said, “I believe I’ll decline that, good sir, but might you have any merlot?”
“I just happen to have a bottle right here, on special reserve for playwrights.” Max uncorked the red wine.
“Do you use your John Wayne voice to do your stories?” Shauna asked him.
“Sometimes. I do a few character voices. When you’ve got a script ready, I’ll be glad to help you with a read-through,” said Max.
Levi smiled to himself. Not even thirty minutes into knowing each other they were already talking shop.
Levi had been entertained by Max’s campfire stories since he was a kid, when his dad had first hired Max as head chef and Old West storyteller. And of course, he’d heard Miss Bradford pull her playwright card at least three times now. Theatrical types always find each other, don’t they?
Max glanced up and saw Levi. “Howdy there, pilgrim. Can I get you anything while I’m here?”
“I’m good, thanks. You can go on now, if you want,” he replied. He saw that Max had set Shauna up with a fruit and cheese tray that was now mostly gone. The princess was oblivious to the fact that Max should have signed out forty-five minutes ago. He himself should be busy breaking horses, but instead they were both going out of their way to accommodate her.
Shauna was leaning across the bar top to accept the glass of wine from Max, and again, Levi found his eyes drawn to her round little bottom, long legs, and high-heeled cowboy boots. Hmmph! He snorted. Probably Italian. The boots and the girl.
He walked to the bar, thanked Max for his efforts, then told Shauna, “Your room is ready. Looks like Max took good care of you. Please help yourself to the gym, pool and hot tub, any of the amenities. Dinner is at 6:30 p.m., so you have a bit of time. Just come to the dining hall when you hear the dinner bell.”
“Great! I believe I’ll check out your pool area.” She turned to Max. “I look forward to hearing your stories. Just put the food and wine on my tab,” she instructed, then took her purse and turned to Levi. “Where is this Belle Starr room?”
He led her back through the lobby area to the front door and opened it for her. They headed down the sidewalk past several fieldstone cabins with tin roofs, amidst western landscaping, and Levi indicated the largest one. He unlocked the door for her and opened it, handing her the key. There was a king-sized bed in the center of the room, with a cedar chest at the foot of the bed. At the far end was a fireplace. An antique bureau, loveseat, and chair furnished the area with old world charm. Framed watercolor paintings of desert landscapes and western vistas graced the room.
“Here is a booklet with our schedule and things you can sign up to do during your stay. Like I said, help yourself to any amenities, and we’ll see you at dinner.”
“Thank you,” she said, smiling up at him.
He looked into her vividly blue eyes and smiled back in spite of himself. Sure, she was a spoiled princess, but she was a pretty little thing. Actually, not so little, he noted. Her head came up almost to his nose with those silly heels on, and that put her full, pouty lips in perfect kissing range. He usually had to bend down to kiss a woman, but she was a long, cool drink of water, lips right there ripe for kissing. He shook that thought out of his mind, remembering how assuming she had been. That kind of woman spelled trouble, no two ways about it. Always expecting more, never satisfied. Time to bow out.
“I need to tend to some business now, ma’am,” he said, nodding to her and heading for the main kitchen.
It was just a skeleton crew and their one guest. He had the meat marinating, but it would take a while to roast. He put together some sides, and when the prep was done, the meat still had forty-five minutes to go, so he set the timer on his phone and went outside to the grounds. He scanned the pool area.
Shauna was in a bikini, lying on her back on a lounge chair by the pool. Her light olive skin was tanning, and her face had a rosier glow. Levi took her in as he approached her from the side, admiring her long legs and the contrast of the turquoise bathing suit with her olive-tan skin. He walked along the fence until she became aware of his presence and sat up, smiling at him.
“Well, Mr. Cassidy. Any relation to Butch?” she asked.
“Nope. And Cassidy wasn’t Butch’s real name. It was Robert Leroy Parker,” he told her, stopping to lean against the pool fence. “I am distantly related to the Sundance Kid, though. Harry Longabaugh. His sister Pearl was my fourth generation grandmother… or maybe fifth. It’s a little hazy.”
“Fascinating! You’ll have to tell me about that,” she said.
He watched her slowly stand and move toward him in a graceful but almost calculated way. Her ‘50s style bikini top showcased her full, perky breasts. When Levi recognized he was staring at her cleavage, he immediately looked back up to her eyes.
She continued sauntering up to the fence. “Can I ask a favor? There is no one else out here this afternoon, and I’d like to turn over and tan my back. Could you please rub some lotion on me?”
What moxie this girl had! Were all city girls these days this forward or was it just this one? He smiled back and said, “I guess I can do that.” Little vixen. Most people didn’t just go up to strangers for things like that. Either this girl was testing his mettle, or she was the biggest tease he’d ever met.
“Thank you so much!” she said as she turned around and went back to her spot with a bit too much sashay in her hips.
He walked to the gate and entered the pool area, approaching her chaise lounge. He would swear she was pushing that cute little bottom out to him a bit, teasing him with it as she bent to pick up her tanning lotion bottle. She stood, smiled, and handed it to him. “Would you rather have me lie down on the lounge, or stay standing?”
“Standing is fine, ma’am,” Levi replied. It was quite a show she was putting on, but he had to admit, it was working. It had been a while since he’d been intimate with a woman. The last year and a half, with all the work, there had been no time, but Lord have mercy, this one would be an amazing comeback.
He warmed some lotion on his palms and then laid his hands gently on her shoulders. She shivered a little at his touch. He brought his fingertips up to the nape of her neck, moving under that thick, shiny hair, most of which she’d pulled over one shoulder, his fingertips rubbing lotion all the way to her hairline. He smoothed it down her neck, stroking the tension away, his hands cupping her shoulders, massaging lotion into her skin. He inhaled coconut and warm woman, and felt his cock spring to life. Good thing her back was turned and nobody was around. He worked around her shoulder blades, taming the tight muscles there, enjoying her satiny skin.
He put his hands on her back beneath her top and rubbed lotion down toward her bikini bottoms. As he worked his palms lower on her back, his fingertips curved around her waist and over her hipbones, and he saw gooseflesh break out across her body. He smiled at her back dimples, and massaged the lotion into the skin using small circles on her lower back, his fingertips occasionally disappearing for a split second under the elastic band of her bikini bottoms.
“Mmmmm…” she purred. She did a little wiggle as he slowly drew his hands back up. He wanted to slip them around her body, pull her in close, cup her warm breasts in his palms, kiss the nape of her neck and nibble her earlobe… to forget about her bratty behavior from before and run his fingers through that silky, shiny hair. He wanted to rub other places…
Levi remembered himself and finished spreading the lotion across her back and shoulders. “There you go,” he commented when he was done.
“Yes, thank you, that was quite lovely,” she told him, lowering her lashes almost shyly. Almost. He got the feeling she didn’t have a shy bone in her body. She smiled at him, turned, and did that slow, hip-swaying sashay away from him, bent to adjust her lounge chair, and lay face down, her smile turned toward him. Levi was pretty sure she could be some kind of dangerous if she set her mind to it.
“I’ll go tend to dinner now, ma’am.” He nodded and went back into the main ranch house. It was crazy to even entertain the notion of kissing this girl, but when he’d touched her, his whole body had responded. And the act she’d put on for him! Her very polished exterior seemed to be designed to have one believe she was rich and successful, but Levi suspected this little lady was all hat, no cattle.
He’d known several cowgirls when he and Charlotte had been on the trick riding circuit, and dated a few, but didn’t recall ever feeling this kind of magnetism. He had much more in common with them, so why all this energy for a strange city girl? It really had been awhile, but dating? Out of the question. He had too much to do to have thoughts of a love life.
When he got to the porch, he turned and looked back only to see Shauna undoing her bathing suit top in back. The Rocking C was a family-style dude ranch. He would have to speak with her about that.
Levi set the tables family style for a staff dinner with one extra—no wait-staff came in tonight. Shauna could join them at the table. He pulled the meat from the oven just as the dinner bell rang. He looked outside and saw Charlotte, right on time, ringing away. She wheeled up her ramp and into the dining hall, to her place at the staff table and took off her gloves. One of his cowhands, Hank, came in shortly after, and Levi brought out the food. The staff dug in right away.
Hank cleared his throat. “We’ve got a stretch of fence down on the south end. Esteban called it in and sent me to do a head count and round up strays while he stretched some temporary wire to keep the herd in. I figure we can get started on that fence repair tomorrow morning before the new guests arrive.”
“Sounds good. Any idea what took it down?” Levi asked.
“Nope. Esteban found it when he was riding the fence. Didn’t say,” Hank said.
“Hmm… I’ll ride out and take a look tomorrow morning.”
Charlotte referenced a printout of the upcoming guests. “We’ve got twenty-two people coming in tomorrow after lunch. Three families, a couple, and there’s a group of frat boys in the bunkhouse. I’ll be behind the front desk, but I can use you boys here to help the guests get settled before campfire tomorrow night for signup and s’mores.”
“I restrung the guitar,” Hank said.
“Good. I’ve got the activities signup sheets ready,” Levi said. “We’re set.”
They all ate and discussed plans for the incoming guests. After fifteen minutes, Shauna graced them with her presence. She arrived in a fresh denim shirt-dress with a white leather western belt and white high-heeled boots, her black hair braided over one shoulder. Levi hoped she’d packed at least one sensible pair of shoes. He stood up and pulled out a chair for her, saying, “Welcome to the Rocking C dinner meeting, princess.” He addressed the group. “Everybody, this is Shauna. She’s a playwright from Dallas, in to start her vacation a little early. She’s in the Belle Starr room.”
The staff each introduced themselves, warmly greeting Shauna. Levi watched with some amusement as she worked the crowd. He got a kick out of watching her flirt, and could see Hank taking a shine to her. Esteban came in, freshly scrubbed after stringing up a temporary fence.
Levi introduced Shauna and then asked, “So what took down the fence?”
“A bull from inside wanting out?” Hank ventured.
“A buffalo, maybe?” Max guessed.
Charlotte winked at Shauna. “I think it’s Bigfoot.”
“Yeah, I’ll give that theory all the attention it deserves,” Levi tossed back.
“You’re all wrong. It was a tree. Remember the big old elm? Lightning strike split into three parts, and one of them landed right on the fence.”
Hank and Esteban talked about tree removal and fence repair plans and Shauna and Charlotte began talking. They ended up in an animated conversation about the watercolor paintings in her room. Levi smiled to see Charlotte’s talent admired, and Charlotte practically beamed.
When Shauna realized she was the artist, she was doubly impressed. “My dad’s an artist. He does mostly murals.”
“I’m the only one in our family,” Charlotte said. “It must be nice to have that around you growing up.”
Levi saw a dark look cross Shauna’s face briefly. She shrugged and said with an odd tone, “Well, I had a really cool jungle mural in my room as a kid.” Then she smiled and asked, “Did you study art?”
“Not really. I took a couple of classes, but painting has always been a hobby of mine, and in the past few months…” Charlotte hesitated, looked down a second, and then went on. “Well, I’ve had more time to dedicate to it.”
“So how are you connected with this ranch?” Shauna asked her.
“I’m the proprietress.”
“You’re Levi’s wife?” Shauna asked, glancing at him.
Was that a hint of disappointment in her voice? He smiled. Why interrupt the flow between them to answer? Kind of nice to think the sexy Dallas playwright was checking him out. And maybe if Charlotte got some quality girl talk time in, she’d stop hounding him about not having another woman around.
“No, I’m his sister. There are two more of us, but they live in Austin. Levi and I were the only ones in the family who wanted to continue to run the family ranch.”
“You should sell your art out in the lobby,” Shauna said.
“What?” Charlotte was confused.
“Frame it and sell it. Display some here in the lobby and I bet you twenty bucks you’ll sell it. Give it a few days, a month, tops, to sell the first one. And postcards of your art would sell regularly,” Shauna said with confidence.
“Hmmm…” Charlotte replied. “Let me show you what I have.”
Shauna followed her as she wheeled down the hall to her room, and they returned a few minutes later talking about the possibilities.
Levi felt glad Charlotte and Shauna hit it off so well, and found himself a bit envious of their natural camaraderie. He tried to shake off the feeling, but all evening long, his eyes kept finding Shauna, admiring those expressive blue eyes and the curve of her smile.
He noticed how she’d withdrawn some at the mention of growing up around art, and wondered what story hid behind that shadow. Seconds later, his own sister had avoided discussing why she’d suddenly found herself with more time on her hands to paint. He decided this was probably best. No need for the girls to sully up a good friendship by dragging in past baggage.
As they ate, Charlotte regaled Shauna with some of their family history and of the five generations who’d run this ranch since the 1800s. Levi saw the warmth in Shauna’s face and stared in wonder that this kind, vibrant person he watched now was the same spoiled little demanding brat from a few hours ago that he’d wanted to spank. The same sensuous vixen from the swimming pool that he’d wanted to kiss. He couldn’t deny it, try though he might, Shauna Bradford had a definite effect on him. This city girl playwright embodied a whole different species of woman.