Cowboy up, p.1
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       Cowboy Up, p.1

         Part #3 of Coming Home series by Harper Sloan
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Cowboy Up


  Praise for Harper Sloan's Coming Home series!

  Kiss My Boots

  "The ending is quite smile inducing."

  --RT Book Reviews (four stars) "Harper Sloan hits it out of the park with Kiss My Boots. . . . This steamy novel is all about second chances and learning to trust again."

  --BookPage

  "Hot, sexy, and full of passion! A Western romance you'll love!"

  --Fresh Fiction

  Lost Rider

  "Sloan . . . hits it out of the park with her first Coming Home contemporary western romance. . . . Maverick is a perfect hero: multilayered, complicated, deeply damaged, yet blooming with the new promise of love. Leighton is appealing and real, as are a strong supporting cast of characters whom readers will be glad to follow into sequels. This absolutely spectacular effort catapults Sloan to the top of her genre."

  --Publishers Weekly (starred review) "The first book in Sloan's Coming Home series is a supersexy second-chance read with a handsome ex-rodeo cowboy hero and the girl he left behind. The characters are well written and the bedroom scenes are hot. . . . Sloan does a wonderful job with portraying the secondary characters, and it looks like Quinn's story, which is next up, is going to be a good one."

  --RT VIP Salon

  "Sloan brings plenty of heat to this otherwise very thoughtful, building love story."

  --Booklist

  Thank you for downloading this Simon & Schuster ebook.

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  To Lara Feldstein,

  from book two to thirteen

  Clay sends his love, darlin'.

  1

  CAROLINE

  "Tin Man" by Miranda Lambert

  The bright, speeding blaze of lightning shooting through and across the night sky illuminates the road ahead of me. The enormous boom of thunder that follows quickly on the heels of such a beautiful display makes me jump in my seat and grip the wheel tighter. Nothing but rain-soaked asphalt and darkness meet my gaze as I continue my drive. Normally, I would recognize the weather as an omen preluding my night's plans. A warning, perhaps, but one I won't be heeding. My mind is all over the place from my call earlier, and I just want to . . . escape, but, more importantly, I know I need a change.

  "What am I doing?" I mumble into the emptiness around me.

  No one answers. Of course no one does. I'm just talking to myself, like usual. Heavens me, if that's not a sign that I'm going insane, I don't know what is.

  "That's what happens when you spend so much time closed off."

  For the first time, the carefully constructed freedom that I've built for myself feels crippling. Or perhaps like it's caving in on me, the loneliness becoming too much. I've never been good at being alone, something I always knew, but I never realized how bad I was at it until now. I built my new life around just that, though, so like it or not, it's time to get over it. It could be worse, I remind myself. Shaking off the melancholy, I continue driving, knowing that when I reach my destination I'll be with people who care about me.

  "Holy cow," I wheeze, gripping the wheel tighter when an even louder clap of thunder breaks the silence. I've always loved storms, but the sky's beautiful display is only amping up my already frazzled nerves, and I feel the unfortunately familiar burn of fear creeping up my spine before I can push it down.

  I pull off the deserted back road and onto the shoulder, my headlights illuminating a sign announcing that I'm now leaving the town of Wire Creek. Beyond that is Pine Oak. It's a small town in northeast Texas, far enough from the big city for residents to be in their own little world. I grew up in Pine Oak, but after moving away just out of high school, I cut all ties and left some bad memories in my wake before returning to the area, opening up my dream bookstore, and calling Wire Creek my home.

  I was close enough to feel the tug pulling me back toward Pine Oak every now and then, but far enough away that I wouldn't likely run into people who knew the old me.

  My bookstore.

  The Sequel.

  It had been my second chance at happiness when I'd needed it the most--hence the name--and is something that I'm immensely proud of, even if being this close to Pine Oak brings back some bad memories I'd rather forget.

  I have--or had, rather--a few friends in Pine Oak. It's not a stretch to think that they're still there--no one really ever leaves Pine Oak. I haven't seen or spoken to them in years though, so I think I've lost the right to call them friends. Actually, that right probably disappeared when I vanished without a word after graduation, and I'm not naive enough to think I'd be forgiven for that. But the stupid little hopeful cheerleader that pops into my mind every now and then likes to remind me that my girls from high school would welcome me back as though no time had passed, if I would just grow up and make my return to the area known. The fact that my mama's still there--not that it matters, since we don't speak anymore--is the driving force that has kept me at a distance, if I'm being honest. I don't need the memory of her to become a daily reality.

  Not after everything that happened.

  Never again.

  "Get yourself together, Caroline. You're stronger than this," I mumble to the sign just outside my window.

  I've become stronger than this. Logically, I know this, but still, old habits don't ever really die, do they?

  I didn't survive the past twelve years to let fear keep me from living the life I've made. I promised myself that I'd take control of my life every day. It's time to stop making up reasons to stay closed off and not begin my new path of living. Impulsiveness might be something outside of my nature, but the only way I can think of to shake another call from him is to leap off the cliff of my comfort zone and make myself live.

  I don't know why, after almost five years away, he started calling again. If it weren't for the memories long suppressed that hearing his voice brings back, I would thank him, though. It's because of that call that I was forced to really see my life, and what I saw, I didn't like.

  Pushing those thoughts out of my mind, I turn the wheel to get back on the road and take the long way around Pine Oak's limits so I can get to the town on the other side--Law Bone. I could go home. I probably should, but I really don't want to be alone right now--something my mind knew immediately during that call, because I ran out into the storm the second I'd tossed my phone across the room. So I point my car to the one place I know without a shadow of doubt will let me lose that feeling of being alone by finding safety in numbers but still remaining by myself at the same time.

  Hazel's, the local honky-tonk, is just outside of Pine Oak--on the farthest opposite end of Wire Creek, inside Law Bone city limits. Okay, to call it a honky-tonk would be a stretch. It's a motorcycle bar that plays country music. It caters to a rough and rowdy crowd, but no one in there ever pays me a lick of mind. Of course, that's probably because one of my best friends is the owner, but even when he isn't there, I'm the last thing a man inside that place is looking for.

  I'm shy by nature, an introverted book nerd who can handle fictional people a lot better than I can deal with real ones. I'm not a head turner. I never really gained the skills needed to make myself look anything but . . . well, plain. I tried. In high school, my best girlfriends always tried to teach me the ins and outs of being girly, but I was too interested in sticking my nose in a book and crushing on fictional cowboys to really retain any of it. I figured that, like in my books, the right man would love me for me and not for what the enhancements of makeup and fancy clothes could do.

  I glance up at my reflection in the rearview as I pull into the lot and park, and fight off a cringe. I look sad, and that sadness makes me look much older than my nearly thirty years. My brown eyes don't shine with the mirth most women my age have dancing in theirs. Those are the carefree women who still believe they'll find a life partner to ride off into the sunset with. Just the thought makes me snort.

  Where I always found my ordinary features and dull brown hair to be boring, I know the one thing I actually do have going for me is my figure. I've got the body of a dancer--thin and petite. It's my greatest attribute. I might not have all the curves most men seem to love, but I've been blessed with a body that requires minimum work to keep trim and firm.

  There isn't anything about me that particularly screams, Hey, look at me! but I've been told men like my shape because it makes them feel like they were made to protect me--or so my good friend Luke always says.

  "Speak of the devil," I mumble with a smile, seeing Luke standing under the awning outside of Hazel's front door, blowing a long stream of smoke from his mouth. The burning tip of his cigarette stands out in the darkness around him.

  Luke Hazel, half of my best-friend duo, and twin brother to Lucy, is a dog, but at least he's an honest dog. Loyal to those he loves. Protective to the max. With his harmless flirting, he's also helped to give me back some of the confidence I lost over the years.

  "Carrie," he drawls when I step out of my car and pull my cross-body purse over my head. I roll my eyes and cringe at the nickname he knows I hate.

  "Lukie Dukie," I jest, tossing out the nickname that I know he hates, placing my hands on my hips and arching a brow at him.

  Not even fazed, he kicks off the wall he'd been leaning against and walks my way. No, he struts. Because a simple walk wouldn't be good enough for this guy. He thinks he's God's gift to the females of the world. I laugh softly and fall into his arms for a hug when he reaches me.

  "Not a good night to be here, sweetheart."

  I push my hands against his abs and look up at him. "And what makes tonight different from all the other nights you say the same thing?"

  "Rowdy, babe. Got some out-of-towners ridin' through lookin' for a good time. Not sure how they'll act when I pull the shotgun out if they try to get in your shorts."

  I feel my nose twitch as I frown at him. "No one's gonna worry about me, Luke."

  He shakes his head. "Not sure how many times I have to drill it in your head, babe, but every man in there is 'gonna worry about you.' "

  "Don't be ridiculous, Luke. Even if you're right and I get some attention tonight, I've dealt with worse than some drunken bikers and you know it. And who says I wouldn't enjoy a little of their attention anyway?"

  He frowns. "Yeah, Carrie, but that doesn't mean I want to put you through some bullshit just because I know you can handle it." His frown deepens, and I know the exact moment the rest of what I said registers. He doesn't call me on it, but he knows better than to ask if I'm ready for that kind of thing. "Told you, just like I tell Luce, this ain't a place to find a bedfellow."

  I smile at the mention of Lucy. "You and I both know you're going to act like my babysitter the second I walk in there, so how about you stop acting like my big brother now and let me get a drink and forget about things for a while, hmm?"

  His eyes narrow. "What you got to forget about, sweetheart?"

  Too late, I realize my mistake. I haven't even talked to Lucy about the calls I've been getting, but with my emotions at the boiling point, my mind just slipped. Luke, the big macho protector that he's always been, isn't going to be happy without hearing what got me driving over to Hazel's on a Tuesday night either.

  I sigh. "I promise, I'll fill you in later, but please, Luke, let me just forget about it all for a little while?"

  He nods, but I can tell he isn't happy about giving in. One big, thickly muscled arm waves toward the door in a sweeping gesture for me to proceed. And even though he seems to be caving, I know a long talk will be coming. I just need to make sure I've had enough to drink so that I'm too intoxicated to deal with that chat tonight.

  The heavy wall of smoke slams into me as we enter the bar. I always thought it was funny that Luke would go outside to have a cigarette when walking into Hazel's is probably the equivalent of smoking an entire pack of cigarettes in just one go. Most nonsmokers find the scent repugnant, but not me. I've always loved the smell of smoke--any kind of smoke--even if that is weird as hell.

  An old Alan Jackson song booms through the air as we walk through the crowded bar. I feel the earlier tension slide off my body with each step and I know I made the right call in coming here. Luke grabs my arms, stopping me before I almost walk into a big, burly man, and pulls me to his side, securing me in place with an arm over my shoulders. I look up at him, smiling when I see his handsome face scowling down at me.

  "What?" I mouth up at him, my smile growing.

  He just shakes his head, continuing to guide me through the crowded room until we're at the very end of the U-shaped bar, closest to his office. He taps the shoulder of a man sitting down and, without a word, waves his hand in some sort of code that must say, Get the hell up, because the young cowboy doesn't even pause, sliding off the stool and disappearing into a darkened corner.

  "You, sit." Luke pushes me toward the empty stool and crosses his arms with a glare at the men closest to the seat he demanded I take.

  "You could say please, you know," I mumble under my breath, but I still follow his order.

  "Could, but I won't."

  "No surprise there, Lukie."

  He bends down until his nose is touching mine. "Watch the 'Lukies' in here, Carrie."

  "Whatever. How about a drink, Mr. Bartender?"

  "Not joking, sweetheart. Don't want the men in here to think you're fair game."

  "Look around, Luke. No one is worried about me." I don't know if that's actually true, but seeing as I've never been the type to turn a bar full of men's attention my way, I'm fairly confident in my assessment.

  "Blind as a damn bat," he mutters loud enough for me to hear clearly over the noise, not backing away.

  I open my mouth to give him a smart-ass retort but stop when I hear a deep, rumbling laugh to my side. I look over, not seeing much apart from the dark cowboy hat next to me. Its owner's face is concealed by shadows as he looks down at the golden-colored liquor in his glass. I can see a stubbled, very strong jaw though--the deliciously strong kind that's angled in such a way you could swear on a stack of Bibles on Sunday morning that someone carved it straight out of stone.

  "Just please, stay here and out of trouble. You need to use the little girls' room, do it in my office. I can't run this place if I'm constantly worried about you."

  "Got her, Luke," the stranger next to me mumbles loud enough to be heard over the music, still not looking up from his glass.

  Luke flicks his gaze in my neighbor's direction, and even though there's no way he can see the man's face, he nods before pulling his attention away and back on me. "Be good, sweetheart."

  He turns and stomps away.

  "I'm always good!" I yell at his back, making the man next to me chuckle in such a low-pitched, manly way I almost feel like calling it a chuckle would be a sin. "What? I am," I defend.

  "Sure you are, sugar." His deep, velvety smooth voice causes a wave of awareness to wash over me.

  "Not that it matters, since I don't know you and all, but I'll have you know I'm the very definition of good. I wouldn't know how to be bad if it bit me in the butt."

  He turns his head toward me. I'm unable to see his face, which is still hidden by the shadows, but I can feel his eyes on me. Their scrutiny is almost like a physical caress. "That so?" he rumbles after another few pounding heartbeats of silent study.

  I nod mutely, wishing I had a drink to wash down the nervousness.

  "How do you know Luke?" he continues.

  "He and his sister are my best friends," I tell him without hesitation.

  "Not your boyfriend?" he drawls.

  "I-- No. He's not my boyfriend," I answer, confused by his questioning.

  "So what's a good girl like you doin' in a place like this?"

  "Maybe I'm sick of being a good girl," I mumble, wishing I could see his eyes.

  He continues to study me and I shift in my seat. Good heavens, what kind of pull does this stranger have over me? I can't even look away, not that I want to, so I study him just as fiercely--even if I can't see his face, I can still see him. And what a mighty fine sight he is.

  Dressed in the typical uniform of most cowboys around here, he's got his well-built frame in a navy-blue button-down shirt, tucked into jeans that I'm sure mold to his amazing-looking body perfectly when he's standing. Even in the dim light, I can see the dirty boots propped up on the step under the bar that keeps short legs like mine from dangling in the air. His hand wrapped around the tumbler is tanned, making me think he must work outside, but it's the long fingers that hold my focus as he uses them to slowly spin his glass against the bar top.

  "Want to?"

  Pulling my eyes from the strangely erotic sight of his hand, I look toward his shadowed face.

  "Want to what?"

  "Be bad, sugar."

  Heat hot as fire washes over me with his words. Holy cow. My jaw works, but words elude me. I don't even know this man's name, let alone anything about him, and if my rusty knowledge of flirting is right, he just propositioned me. Why I find that as hot as I do, I'll never know, but before I even know what's happening, my brain finally figures out how to get the words past my shocked jaw.

  "I think I do."

  My eyes widen at the same time his hat dips, and then he turns and holds up two fingers toward Luke farther down the bar. Call it male intuition, whatever kind of magic men have to know when another member of their brotherhood needs a drink, but Luke looks up the second the dark cowboy's fingers are in the air and nods. Not even a minute later, he's placing two glasses much like the one my mysterious companion just finished in front of us. Luke walks away without a word, clearly trusting this man if he's willing to let me drink with him and not give me a speech about drinking responsibly. When the chill of glass touches my knuckles, I look down.

 
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