Heather decided if this was to be a popularity contest where the cowboys were deciding the winner of the ranch, then she had it won hands down. After moving her suitcase and various boxes into the room that Mabel showed her to, Heather sat down on the feather-tick mattress to plan out her strategy.
It was clear the old man wanted to give her the ranch. While she didn’t think he needed to justify his final decision to the workers, she recognized that she didn’t have all the facts. Clearly Tristan Rogers was a man to be reckoned with. Twenty years ago he had a forceful presence about him that even a naive girl could recognize, and the years only enhanced that budding promise.
Of course she remembered when her Uncle Avery had died. Her mother had called her up to let her know that Avery, only forty, had broken his neck in an auto accident on the ranch. It had been raining heavily, there had been a mudslide, and the truck had rolled. Tristan’s uncle, Simon, had also been in that accident, and when the news had come, he had gone to Hart Ranch to help her grandfather.
He had never left.
But whether Tristan Rogers knew it or not, she wasn’t about to let go of her inheritance without a fight.
Heather reached for a cigarette and lit one, taking a deep drag and holding it in her lungs for a moment before releasing it. Thoughts of Tristan made her jumpy, on edge. Over the years he had crept into her mind whenever her mother or father would mention Hart Ranch, or when the vacation album had been out. Of course, once her father had walked out on them, those fond reminiscences had disappeared altogether.
The past can’t be undone, and the sins can’t be erased.
Heather shook her head and deliberately steered her mind away from that door in her memory. It had been locked years ago for a reason. After another drag on her cigarette, she looked for a place to smash it out, finally opening her half-filled water bottle to throw it in. She swished the water around to make sure the fire was out and then sat the bottle on her nightstand.
A popularity contest would be no problem at all. She had learned years ago that men only thought with their cocks, and she had spent her entire adult life getting what she wanted by using her natural assets. Tristan Rogers didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell.
* * * * *
As efficiently as the ranch ran, Tristan sometimes found himself without pressing matters to attend to, giving him time to think. Unfortunately, today was one of those days.
Currently, he had a certain blonde bombshell on his mind, and damn if it didn’t rattle his cage. The promising little girl from the back of his memories had grown up into a sexy, eye-popping woman.
One dressed like a schoolgirl hooker.
Tristan frowned. Something had changed about her, something had hardened her eyes and turned her lips down at the corners. The years hadn’t been kind to Heather Hart.
He rubbed a little harder with the leather conditioner, probably more than he needed, on the pommel. He had spent the rest of the afternoon inside cleaning the saddles after seeing her again, needing the monotonous routine to regain control of his thoughts.
Twenty years ago she had been a wide-eyed little pixie who had caught him off guard as a young man. He had deliberately forced himself to not think about her because she had been jailbait. But now she was a woman, and his body had more than jumped to attention when he saw her again in her too-short skirt and too-tight shirt. His dick had just about turned to concrete in his jeans.
Tristan frowned, then reached to adjust himself. Even just thinking about her made him hard. Damn.
He wasn’t a stupid man, despite a lack of higher education. Lincoln Hart had hinted he would inherit the ranch, but Tristan knew there was a sentimental streak inside the dying man. Lincoln wanted the land to stay in the Hart family, and so out of the blue the missing granddaughter shows up. Didn’t take a genius to figure it out.
Tristan loved Lincoln Hart like a father. He respected the weathered man for all he had accomplished to bring the ranch into the modern age. Lincoln had a head for management that had served the land well, prospering while many surrounding ranches fell prey to various financial hardships. And Tristan knew he could carry the ranch far into the future; Lincoln had taught him well.
Now Tristan stood ready to lose everything due to the sentimental whims of death. He didn’t blame Lincoln for wanting the ranch to stay in Hart hands, but Heather didn’t seem the type of woman who would or could understand the intricate knowledge of a cattle operation.
Several hands started running to the main arena near the house. Tristan rose from his seat and wiped his hands, re-capping the bottle of leather conditioner. He looked out of the barn and saw the ranch practically deserted. He followed the loud music, which came from the arena, long abandoned since Avery and Simon died.
When he walked inside, he caught a glimpse of Heather Hart and stopped in midstride.
* * * * *
The sun had almost set when Heather left the house to make her way back down to the abandoned arena. She bypassed Mabel, who worked in the kitchen, and headed down the paved driveway. She had changed out of her schoolgirl outfit into Rio shorts and a tank that hugged her curves intimately.
As she walked, she turned heads. She could feel the stares of the ranch hands as each one noticed her. But then again, she had planned it that way and made sure she put an extra wiggle in her ass as she walked. The shorts, worn without panties, accentuated her flat tummy and the diamond ring in her belly button. The tank had a hard time containing her generous breasts. She was sleek, toned, and tanned -- a lethal trio for any man.
When she got to her destination, she moved to the center of the arena and propped up her MP3 player, finding the warm-up song she wanted and hitting Play. Heather started her exercise routine, knowing the men watched her. Part one of her mission had begun.
Her music was fast with a hard beat. Her hips swayed, and she made sure to put extra swagger into the aerobics for her audience. The dance steps were simple, repetitive, making it easy to lose herself in the music. For a moment, the audience disappeared, and she felt free.
As each tempo changed to match her workout, Heather immediately matched her dance pattern. She could only imagine what it looked like to the men, a girl humping and grinding the air. Sweat started to run down her temples, cleansing her skin. Maybe even cleansing more if she psychoanalyzed herself.
When the cardio was over, she panted heavily, glad to hear the slower strands of the music that would cool her down. She decided to forgo the abdominal routine, thinking the men couldn’t handle any more. They needed to be eased into having her around, to be teased into wanting her to stay. When she shut off the music, she turned around and saw about two dozen men watching her, mouths hanging open.
“You guys don’t get to ogle without participating,” she told them. “Next time you have to join in.”
Most of the cowboys chuckled or had the grace to blush, which she thought was cute. All shuffled out of the arena except for one man who leaned up against the wall, arms and ankles folded in a casual pose.
Tristan’s hat was pushed back on his head, and she could see one eyebrow raised. “It takes nerves to strut that body around a ranch full of horny, hot-blooded men.”
“Like what you see?”
“I’m not dead or gay,” he replied, uncrossing his legs and pushing himself off the wall.
“Good to know,” she answered back with a saucy toss of her head. Her ponytail bobbed against her back.
“Nor am I stupid. Don’t let the accent fool you.”
“Hiding a PhD under that Stetson?”
“Trying to hide my temper.”
“Why? Because you lust for my body? Don’t worry, most men do. I’m an aerobics instructor, so I’m used to the leering.”
“Shut the hell up, Heather,” he growled. “Are you trying to get raped?”
Before she knew what she was doing, her hand flew out to smack him across the cheek. In stunned disbelief, she watched her handprint turn bright red against his tan flesh. He stared at her for a full minute, his lips tight and compressed.
“That was a little uncalled for,” he said as he rubbed the tender area.
“A man should never make jokes about something like that.”
“I wasn’t. I’m just saying unless you want a lot of unwanted male company, you better put your dancing back in the can.”
“Excuse me, but this is an abandoned arena, and I’ve been invited to stay here by my grandfather, who is your boss.” She stressed that little reminder.
“Decided to throw around the name, huh?”
“No need, Tristan. I’m sure you remember it.”
They stood toe-to-toe, her hands on her hips and his crossed over his chest. It took her a moment to realize an electric charge had sprung up between them, zapping her skin. The feeling surprised her, and she could tell he felt it too, by the way his eyes narrowed and how his body tensed.
He stood a few inches taller, and this close she could still see the young, good-looking boy from long ago in the handsome man before her. Faint little lines ran from his eyes. Grooves bracketed his mouth. He wore a cowboy hat, of course, a big gray one pulled low upon his forehead. It cast his eyes into shadow. His jaw had a day’s worth of whisker stubble that she bet would tickle her bare skin most deliciously. The idea of having him rub up and down her body caused her pulse to jump. She shifted slightly to ease the sudden tension between her thighs.
“Hey, boss?” came a questioning voice from the doorway, causing Heather to jump slightly. She immediately stepped back from Tristan. “Some of us are gonna try to train that new horse. Want to rope the steer with us?”
Without taking his gaze off her, Tristan waved his hand. “I’ll be right there.”
“Boys will be boys,” she murmured, her voice husky.
“Ranch work is never done.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.” She turned and grabbed her MP3 player, aware of his gaze following her every move.
Beth D. Carter