Derek Ford was dead. What that had to do with her, though, was a mystery that dug under Tessa Fairchild’s skin, trumped only by the question of why she’d bothered to come back here in the first place. She’d cut her ties to the ranch and everything that went with it a year ago. The last thing she needed was this haunting sense of déjà vu by returning to the place where it all started. Yet here she was, answering the summons of a dead man. Tessa told herself she was here out of respect. After all, Derek had been as much a victim as she was. Two lives ruined in one fell swoop.
She glanced out the cockpit at her destination below.
Rustlers Retreat, an experience you’ll always remember.
The innocent promotional tagline screamed volumes. She had a wealth of experience from the few years she’d worked on the dude ranch. That one revelation, though, delivered a year ago, had not only erased all the good experiences--it had also chased her
away and forever branded her with a horrid reality she’d never be able to forget.
God knew, she’d tried.
Tessa wanted nothing to do with the ranch or the people involved with it. Yet at the sight of the white Suburban pulling away from the large Victorian inn and heading toward the runway, her body trembled and said otherwise. Rex Williams and Tyler Coltrane were coming to greet her.
She hated that she’d missed them so much. Hated herself more for the way she’d left. When she’d cut her ties to Rustlers Retreat, she’d cut her ties to them too. Completely. No harsh words spared.
Had they missed her as much as she missed them?
. A sudden spate of nerves coiled in her stomach. She wished she’d taken better care in what she’d worn. A threadbare T-shirt from Catalina Island, jeans, and sneakers when she hadn’t seen them, hadn’t had them, in over a year? Tessa laughed at herself and the image that came to mind of her flying the aircraft in fuck-me-now attire. Those nerves broke free of her stomach and trickled over her skin, igniting goose bumps.
“You all right?”
Nate Bridger’s question over the headset--the first words he’d spoken since they’d taken off from Palm Springs--startled her.
“I thought you were still asleep,” she replied, avoiding the question.
He flexed his shoulders. “I heard the landing gear deploy. Appreciate the nap, though. It was a long night.”
For both of them. By rights, flying today wasn’t a good idea. Tessa didn’t care when the only one she had to worry about was herself. Nate had decided to hitch a ride at the last minute. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she didn’t have the energy to fight him. Besides, she had to admit she liked the safety net of having him along. Her pilot’s license wasn’t that old, and going solo wasn’t her favorite thing to do, especially when thunderstorms could and did pop up in the blink of an eye between California and Texas this time of year. Plus, she’d need all the emotional support she could get.
“Not a problem. So why, exactly
, did you insist on tagging along?”
“Avoidance is more like it,” she countered.
“True enough,” he admitted. “I definitely needed a break while I figure things out.”
Tessa almost asked what things?
But she already had enough on her plate to worry about. When Nate wanted to talk, he knew he could come to her. That was what friends were for, and Nate was one of the best.
“I felt you shouldn’t fly alone.” He rolled the kinks from his neck. “I know how tired you are. You might think you’re fooling everyone, but I saw how you reacted when you heard about your friend.”
Yes, her shock had been real. Fortunately, Tessa had been able to hide the other emotions that roiled through her--anger, despair, hurt--and the bone-deep hunger that had struck her at the sound of Tyler’s voice on the other end of the line.
“We’re there for each other in other ways. This is no exception. You’d do it for me.” He cracked his knuckles. “And wouldn’t take no for an answer either.”
Again, Tessa couldn’t argue. The casino ribbon-cutting ceremony unveiling her latest design hadn’t been the most convenient time or place for the call. But then, was there ever a good time to hear someone you cared about had died? And Tessa did care about Derek. They were friends, and he hadn’t deserved what had happened any more than she did. Nate had kept the hounds at bay last night while she’d dealt with her emotions and tried desperately to get a flight out of Palm Springs. Weekend traffic and weather delays made that impossible. Thank goodness she had the option of using this private plane.
“You never said how he died.”
Because talking about it opened the door to other questions she didn’t want to deal with. Like how she knew him. Why she’d left Rustlers and cut ties with the two men she could barely live without. But then, wouldn’t Nate be asking those questions once he saw Rex and Tyler? Once he saw how much they meant to her? How much she missed them?
Nope, she didn’t want to open those floodgates. And just because she got all fluttery at the thought of Rex and Tyler didn’t mean they fluttered
back. After all, a year was a long time to go without. She sure hadn’t. They wouldn’t have either. And while she hadn’t moved on, men like them...
“Earth to Tessa. Earth to Tessa.”
She snapped her attention into focus. “Sorry. He was killed in a fall from his horse, but I don’t have the details,” she finally replied. No one did at this point. “It doesn’t make sense.” Nothing had since the day Mike Ford died, and the life she and Derek had once known died with him. “He was more skilled than that.” But accidents didn’t play favorites. Unless...
Tessa bit off another round of rambling thoughts. She had a plane to land. Focus had to be 100 percent. She flexed her fingers around the controls and focused her attention on landing the aircraft. She watched Nate from the corner of her eye, waiting for him to say something. His silence forced her to glance his way.
She watched as Nate scanned over the acres of prime Texas hill country real estate from behind his dark aviator glasses.
“It is that.” Acres and acres of rolling green dotted with cattle in the distance, a sprawling ranch house, the three-story Victorian-style inn, and the aviary that had brought her to the ranch in the first place three years before. All upwind of the livestock, of course, and a good distance from the runway. It looked like a small community with all the outbuildings and private guest houses spread around the place.
White oyster-shell roads threaded their way through the green fields to each building. Ancient oaks ringed the property and were also scattered throughout the pastures, providing well-needed shade for cattle and a great haven for picnickers...or lovers. Although most of the time, people took refuge in the climate-controlled aviary.
Scattered ponds mirrored blue sky and fluffy clouds. The nearby creek was filled to capacity and running hard, evidence of the heavy storm that had hit the area early yesterday morning. Wind, hail, and tornado warnings had also played havoc with air travel, thwarting her attempts to book a flight because of overflow filling the planes.
“Is that aviary your design?”
“It is. Mike Ford commissioned it on word-of-mouth recommendation. It was my first major job outside of California. I was beyond thrilled.” But her parents weren’t. Now she knew why. “He’d wanted a little oasis for his wife. Inside there’s a small brook, small waterfalls, glades for picnics. Even a large storm shelter beneath it.”
“Outstanding. She must have loved it.”
“She never lived to see it. Cancer took her first.”
That about summed it up. She hadn’t known Mary very long but had really liked her.
“How close were you to being finished?” Nate asked.
“I had the blueprints, and that was it. Mike still wanted it built.”
“Derek Ford is his son?” he asked.
How to answer that one. “Born and raised here.” That much was the truth. “Mike died a year ago.” Shortly after she’d finished her work.
“I’d like to say it’s nice you were able to maintain a friendship with his son, but somehow, I’m not sensing that from you. So who is Derek to you? Friend, business associate...lover?”
“Friend.” Yes, they were that. “It’s complicated.”
“It always is, isn’t it?”
Nate sounded sad, resigned, and she couldn’t help wondering what had or was complicating his life. Everyone had their secrets. Secrets that sometimes ruined the lives of others. Tessa wished Mike had kept his secrets to himself.
“I’ve got this.”
Nate folded his big hands around the controls, and just like that, he took the plane from her. Relief seeped into her muscles.
“Here we go.”
The wings dipped as he banked into the final turn to approach. Blue sky and fluffy clouds stirred her memory of fresh-cut grass, hot cowboys, a want that grew every second she was with them, and the reality that had ruined it all.
“The welcoming party’s arrived.” Nate’s chuckle reverberated through the headphones. “Oh ho...cowboys. No wonder you wanted to come alone.”
Another jolt of want wiggled through her. Her heartbeat triple-timed. Her nerves tingled. “I didn’t say I wanted to come alone. I said I didn’t expect to be here long.”
Nate leveled out. The runway was dead ahead. Tessa riveted her attention on the white SUV and the two men standing next to it. They grew closer by the second, giving her a view so startling, she swore she could feel the heat of their bodies, smell the sweat on their skin. Both were dressed in dusty boots, well-worn jeans, and long-sleeved western shirts--Rex in chambray blue, Tyler in tan plaid. Tan cowboy hats shielded their faces from the sun. Sunglasses hid their eyes. Six-foot-somethings with shoulders made to cling to and raw muscle no material could ever hide. No matter what the circumstances, they still were and always would be irresistible. The challenge of stripping them bare and having them laid out for her pleasure--or she theirs--churned her blood and raced her heart.
Rex and Tyler gave as good as they got and then some. It was the then some
that had played through her mind the last year, making her reach for her toys at all hours of the day and night, or lure a friend--aka Nate--into easing her woes. No, she hadn’t wanted Nate along. Awkward about summed it up.
A shiver coursed through her. Enough of that
. Her body didn’t listen. Her mouth watered. Her clit throbbed, parting the flood of juices below. Tessa had a serious weakness for these cowboys and their calloused palms, wide belts, and strong thighs used to long hours in the saddle. Her insides thrummed at the thought of hot cowboy flesh pressed against hers.
“They’re Derek’s partners in Rustlers Retreat, Rex Williams and Tyler Coltrane.” At least that was the plan when she’d hauled ass out of there a year ago--full partnership in the ranch and inn, rather than the inn alone.
“How do you fit into the picture?”
Very nicely right between them.
Nate’s chuckle hinted he knew what she was thinking. The plane bounced with the landing, a deliberate maneuver meant to rattle her, just like his laughter. Tessa didn’t appreciate it in the least.
“Your landing sucks.”
Nate laughed. “Is that the best you can do?”
She kept her mouth closed, eyes riveted on the cowboys monitoring their stop.
Nate cut the engines and shut down the controls. “I have to say, they don’t look too happy.”
No, they didn’t. Rex’s scowl almost broke her heart. She’d done this--deserted them, walked out like they didn’t matter, like what they’d shared in the time she’d been there was nothing. “They just lost their friend. Their business partner.”
“I’m pretty good at reading people, Tess. I’m not seeing grief. One’s pissed, and the other one’s got walls up.”
True enough. Worse were the feelings stirring inside her at the sight of them--not the ones that curled her toes and plummeted her stomach, but rather the ones that forced her to mirror their actions. Yeah, she might have walked out, but if they cared for her as much as they said they did, they’d understand.
“You spoke to one of them yesterday after the lawyer called, and everything seemed fine.”
The richness of Tyler’s voice over the phone had seeped into her veins, triggering so many emotions she’d wanted to weep. The memory of all the good times they’d shared had lingered throughout the night and had helped take the edge off the ordeal to come. Envisioning his tongue tracing idly through her...nether regions sweetened her dreams in what little sleep she’d managed to get.
“Maybe something’s happened since then,” Nate said. “I’m just saying, having your guard up might be a good idea.”
“No problem there.”
Tessa made the mistake of glancing toward them. She bit her bottom lip.
“I don’t think looking like you want to jump their bones is what you were going for.” He chucked her under the chin.
She flashed him a glare. “Maybe I’ll jump yours instead.”
“I’m crushed you’d use me as a substitute for what you really want.” The glint in his eyes said differently.
Tessa unsnapped her seat belt. “That never seemed to bother you before.”
“Aha. Now you admit you were thinking of someone else whenever we were together.”
“And you weren’t?” She snickered.
“Point made. But”--he pulled off the headphones--“that’s what friends are for, right?” He gave her a wink, released his seat belt, and started to stand.
Tessa fisted his T-shirt, holding him in place. “I need you to have your game face on.” That no-nonsense look that scared the piss out of people and made linebackers quake.
“Why? To scare them off so you won’t be tempted? To teach them a lesson?”
He didn’t have to thread that hint of laughter through the words. “Something like that.” Damn, did her cheeks heat with that statement?
“I’ll consider it.” He whipped up his right index finger. “But if there’s any hint they’re gonna beat me up--”
“What’s so intimidating about two cowboys? You could take them.”
“I don’t know, Tess. You tell me.”
Heat definitely flushed her cheeks this time, giving her away.
Nate’s laughter filled the plane. Tessa was fairly certain Rex and Tyler heard it too.
“Well, well, well.” He leaned into her space. “This should be interesting.” He peeled her fingers from his T-shirt but didn’t release her hand. “All right, then. Game face on for the moment. But I’m not getting in the middle of this. Unless you want me to,” he added with a wide grin, his innuendo loud and clear.
Tessa jerked her hand free. “We’re wasting time.”
She pushed from her seat, anxious to put as much distance between them as possible. He’d scrambled her thoughts, churned her emotions, and hadn’t really helped one damn bit. Some friend he turned out to be.
Tessa released her hair from its haphazard ponytail and fluffed out the long strands. She stuffed her scrunchie into her pocket, then grabbed her carry-on and exited the plane. Texas heat and humidity slammed into her full force, making her wish she’d shoved vanity aside and left her hair up.
Sure strides took her toward Rex and Tyler. False bravado but bravado nonetheless. No one needed to know her emotions danced a fine edge. Too many thoughts conspired against her control. Tessa fought every one, only too aware of the man coming up behind her and the two cowboys in front of her.
Her breath hitched. She wanted to run to them, toss her arms around them both, and feel them press her between them, shielding her from the world. Tessa shoved the emotion back where it belonged, behind her walls, and yanked her badass persona to the forefront. It was her protection against the world. The one that made her a formidable and well-respected businesswoman.
Both men relaxed their rigid stance as she neared, making her second-guess herself. A hint of dimples kissed Tyler’s suntanned cheeks. Rex’s square jaw was set but not clenched. Seeing their eyes would have helped her judge them better. She could tell a lot from a person’s eyes, especially theirs.
She pushed her sunglasses up, using them as a headband. Tyler snatched his off, stuffing the stem into his shirt pocket, lowering his defense shields, as it were. Seeing his chocolate-brown eyes and the hint of sparkle in them helped. Maybe things weren’t as they seemed.
It was Tyler who moved first, stepping forward to close the distance between them. Tessa quickened her pace, her arms opening of their own volition. In seconds he’d swooped her into a hug, lifting her sneakered toes off the ground. She held on for dear life, eyes closed, her face burrowed into his neck, inhaling the scent of one of the men she’d loved yet left. Strong, calloused fingers slipped under her T-shirt and spanned her back.
“God, I’ve missed you.”