Series: The Marshall Ranch Series
With his competing days behind him, Wyatt Marshall has settled into ranching life in Marietta, Montana. But with the Copper Mountain Rodeo, his only exception, just around the corner, the last thing he needs is a distraction – especially one in the form of a pretty, yet vaguely familiar country singer.
For Claire Miller, it’s been almost a year since she fled Las Vegas with only her purse and the clothes on her back, and she’s been laying low in Montana with a new image. When she and her country band travel to perform in the small town of Marietta, she doesn’t plan on getting stranded there for several days. Or for an innocent offer to stay at a nearby ranch to turn out to be more than she bargained for: she recognizes its owner to be the same sexy cowboy she got hot and heavy with – then stood up – in Vegas.
With the passion flaring between them and Wyatt getting closer to putting the pieces together, Claire is ready to run again, not knowing the danger that sent her fleeing in the first place is close on her heels.
Claire silently cursed herself for goading him about the rodeo. She knew damn well he was a roper, and that he was good. Not just good, but real good. He’d won that NFR competition the night she’d met him.
God, he was sexy right now. She couldn’t help but notice while he’d rode with so much ease on that horse. Tall and proud, with the cowboy hat low on his head.
Wyatt had dismounted with grace and ease, and she knew she was about to make a damn fool of herself trying to get off the horse.
She pulled one leg from the stirrup and tried to swing it over the horse, but her thigh cramped. Before she could try again, strong hands circled her waist and lifted her easily from the saddle.
Claire gasped, clutching his shoulders as Wyatt lowered her slowly to the ground. It was only a split second where her breasts barely brushed against his chest, before she was set on her feet. Feeling a little light headed, she gripped his forearms just as her knees buckled.
“You okay?” He kept his hands on her waist, holding her up.
“Yeah,” she whispered.
She was all too aware of his hands on her, even with the thin layer of her sweater between them. Her pulse raced and her tongue grew thick in her mouth.
“My, um, legs are a little stiff.”
“Saddle sore. It’ll get worse before it gets better, seeing as we have to ride back.”
“Good to know.”
He grinned down at her and their gazes held. Her stomach did another flip. “It’ll get better the more you ride. Same with that mounting and dismounting stuff.”
She gave a reluctant smile. “You make it look really easy.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got just about a foot on you, too.”
“So I’ve noticed.” She’d tried to sound flippant, but her words were husky.
His smile diminished and his gaze slid to her mouth.
Her heart began a low thud in her chest and heat spread through her body.
Oh, God. It was happening again. It was like Vegas, but even stronger.
Wyatt cleared his throat and took a step back. “Let’s stretch our legs and walk a little. I wanted to show you something.”
A pang of disappointment hit her and she hated herself for it. She didn’t want to get involved with Wyatt Marshall. Not again. Even if he’d looked at her like he was thinking about kissing her, he hadn’t. And it was a good thing.
She followed him through the handful of trees, until they reached a clearing along a small river.
Her breath caught at the site of sparkling water and dramatic rise of mountains beyond.
“Wow.” The word came out on a sigh. “This is gorgeous.”
“Isn’t it?” He moved to stand beside her, hands on his hips as he stared out at the landscape. “Favorite spot on the ranch.”
“We’re still on your property?” She shot him a startled look.
“The edge of it, yeah.”
Pride filled his face and she could well understand why. She’d never owned anything, and to have a piece of land this large and amazing was incredible for anyone.
“Do you bring the ranch guests here? Show them?”
“Yeah.” He grimaced. “Pretty popular spot for selfies.”
She laughed softly. “I can see why. Thank you for bringing me here. I’m a total newbie with this horseback riding stuff.”
“You did great. Some of the guys who come up for a weekend are all swagger until you throw them on the back of a horse.”
“Really? You’re not just saying that to make me feel better?”
“Hey, you didn’t complain once about your balls hurting.”
Her laughter was loud and belly-filled now. “They don’t really complain about that, do they?”
“Some of them sure do. Have to deduct points on their man card.”
She shook her head. “Well, I really can’t compare, because I’m not equipped with the same parts.”
“No, you’re not.” His gaze slid over her, the sparkle in his eyes turned from amusement to something hotter, making her all tingly again.
“Anyway, I hope you’re having fun, Claire. Maybe even realizing that horseback riding can be pretty amazing.”
“I think I am. I love it out here.” She glanced back at the view. “But I’m surprised you’re not at the parade. Most of the town seems to go, from what I hear.”
“I do some years, but I’m not big for the spotlight.”
Which he probably would’ve been in being the hometown boy NFR champion. He didn’t seem the type to love the crowds and attention, which was why he’d ended up in her club after winning his NFR buckle.
“I think it’s really cute that you guys do all these events,” she said quietly.
Judging by his tone, he didn’t appreciate her word choice, and she realized how that had sounded.
She flushed. “Well, not cute, but just charming how small towns shut down everything just to celebrate a rodeo.”
He grunted and looked away.
Oh yeah. She’d definitely irked him and wasn’t making it any better. Was it better to keep talking or just shut up?
“It’s not just a rodeo, honey. It’s about taking time to enjoy life. To spend time with your family and friends. To take a break from the grind that’s just trying to kill you.”
God, she really wished he wouldn’t call her honey. It did things to her. Melted her a little.
“I think you big city folk could learn a thing or two from us small towns.”
Those words stopped the melting and she bristled. “Maybe. But some of these small towns can also be judgmental and cliquey—they don’t exactly welcome outsiders.”
“Was that your experience here?” he asked mildly.
Shame had her closing her eyes. “No, maybe in other towns, but that wasn’t my experience here. I’m sorry. You guys have been pretty incredible, actually.”
He nodded. “You can thank my sister for that.”
Did that mean he hadn’t been on board with her staying here? “I did. Katie’s very nice.”
“Sometimes too nice.”
She sucked in a breath and lifted her chin. “You’re not happy I’m staying here.”
He turned to face her. “I’m currently undecided.”
She met his gaze head on. “You don’t like me.”
They weren’t questions. They were statements she threw at him.
He closed the distance between them and she fought the instinct to back up.
“I don’t know you, Claire.” He reached up to catch one curl that had fallen over her shoulder. “Or do I?”
Panic exploded in her belly. For a moment, she’d almost forgotten their history in Vegas. She’d allowed herself to imagine they were meeting for the first time this weekend.
“No. You really don’t know me at all.” It was a fairly honest answer that she didn’t have to feel guilty about.
He twisted her curl around his finger and then released it, moving his calloused fingers to trace down the curve of her jaw.
The desire to turn her cheek into his palm was almost overpowering. She bit her lip to stop from doing it.
“You’re right. I don’t know you,” he relented. “But I find myself wanting to.”
Bad idea. She shouted the response in her head, but couldn’t seem to manage it out loud. She was frozen with the need to know what happened next. What he’d say. What he’d do.
What he did was to let her go and turn away. “We should get back.”