My brothers and I hauled the ten-foot-tall Christmas tree in from the back of Clint’s truck, the smell of spruce and sap sharp in my nose. It was already the first of December. A month past when Mama usually had the house decked out for the holiday. But with my family’s ranch being the subject of a hit reality TV show and Mama’s serious heart attack not long ago, everything had been delayed. I wanted them to cancel the show, kick all these people off our property, and forget about the money they were making. I was a champion bull rider, well, I had been. Now I was retired, home for good, and ready to do my part to keep the family business going. But they wouldn’t hear it. Apparently, since I’ve been gone the last ten years, they figured out how to exist without me around.
My sisters-in-law, Penny and Ever, were helping my baby sister Sera hang a lighted wreath over the big front room window while Mama and my brother’s new wife Hazel used a needle and thread to make popcorn and cranberry garland for the tree. I couldn’t help but smile. I hadn’t been home for longer than a few days at a time until this year. I usually missed all this. The preparing, the traditions, the nights spent by the fire watching movies, sharing stories, playing cards at the old kitchen table.
Fuck, this tree was heavy. The spiky needles poked into my arm even through the thick fabric of my flannel shirt. “All right, boys, let’s get this beast set up.”
Clint chuckled. “Goin’ soft in your old age, Sammy.”
“You’re older than me.”
“Come on, guys, I’m the one trapped at the ass end of this thi—”
“Tristan Nicholas, I know I didn’t just hear you curse in my house,” Mama interrupted Tristan, and the rest of us snickered.
We settled the giant tree in front of the window and let the girls dictate whether it was straight or not. After a few tries, we had it locked in, and Mama gave her seal of approval.
“I think this is the biggest tree we’ve ever had,” Tristan said, sauntering over to his new bride.
Hazel’s smile had been wide and bright as she watched my brother carry the admittedly heaviest part of the tree, but now that he was sitting beside her, she looked radiant. Her palm rested on her swollen belly, wedding band glinting in the light. I couldn’t believe my baby brother was the second of us to get hitched. He was so damn happy with Hazel. They all were happy. I fought the wave of jealousy that tried to take me under. I gave up my one chance at love a long time ago.
“Sam, would you bring in some more firewood? And let the ranch hands know I’ve got hot cider ready in the kitchen. They’re all welcome to come get some.”
My chest tightened. I hadn’t talked to most of them for more than a few minutes at a time since I came home. I liked working on my own. It was why bull riding was so right for me. It was just me and the bull, no one else to tell me what to do. “Sure, Mama.”
I strode through the living room and down the hall until I reached the kitchen. The back door opened, and Tucker Weston stepped inside, snow on his shoulders, his hat hiding his eyes. He took off the dark felt Stetson and hung it on the hook, locking gazes with me as he began shrugging out of the heavy coat he wore.
“Sammy,” he said, brow furrowed.
“Don’t call me that.”
I might as well have clocked him. He flinched, the hurt in his eyes making my stomach twist. “Sorry. I just… Mama mentioned the tree was going up today. I brought her something to add.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out an ornament, a beautiful hand-carved stallion that looked like it was running in the wind.
“She’ll love it.”
He shrugged. “Had a bit of extra time while I was recovering.” My chest grew tight at the memory of me finding him thrown from his horse, unconscious and bleeding, only a few weeks ago. That had been the first time we’d spoken since my return home.
Holding out my hand, I waited for him to give the ornament to me, but he looked at my palm like it might hurt him. Then his fingers brushed mine, and the present was there.
“Tucker!” Mama called, pure joy in her exclamation. Tucker jumped and pulled his hand away, shame coloring his cheeks. God, that hurt.
“How’s the tree?” he asked.
“Large,” she admitted. “But perfect. Did Sam tell you the cider is ready?”
His gaze flicked to mine. “Not yet. I was showing him your new ornament.”
Her eyes brightened. “Oh, you brought it?”
Nodding, he waited for me to pass it to her. The smile she gave me when I handed the horse to her made my heart swell. Seeing her happy changed the tone in the entire room.
“It’s so beautiful, Tucker. You really have a gift.”
“I’m glad you like it, ma’am. I’ll just let the rest of the hands know the cider is ready for them. I noticed your firewood supply is running a little low. Justin can chop some for you in the morning.”
“That’d be fine, Tuck.” Mama looked from me to Tucker, then down at her ornament. “I’m gonna put this on the tree.”
She left the two of us in the kitchen, the silence heavy. I let my gaze land everywhere but him.
He stepped toward me, one hand outstretched. “Sam—“
“I have firewood to get. Cider’s in the slow cooker.” I rushed away from him, not able to handle him touching me again. Tucker Weston was more than our most seasoned, loyal, reliable ranch hand.
He was the man I’d spent one intense summer of discovery with. The one I’ve never been able to get over. The one who broke my heart into jagged shards that had been stabbing me ever since, and the reason I stayed away for so long.
I’d known seeing Tucker again was going to be hard. I never imagined it would be impossible.
Ten years earlier
“Twenty-one. Finally. And a shiny new buckle to add to your growing collection,” my older brother Clint said, raising his beer and waiting for me to do the same. I grinned like an idiot, staring down at the proof that my bull riding career was just getting started. From here, I could go places. I could make something of myself. Make my dad proud.
“It’s not like we haven’t had our share of beers at the pond.” I chuckled under my breath as I clinked my glass to his.
“Yeah, but I’m tired of Travis being my only company out here.”
“Fuck you, Clint. I’m sitting right here.” Travis laughed, giving my brother a slight punch in the shoulder. “Besides, you wouldn’t have gotten half the buckle bunnies you’ve had without me.”
I nearly spit my beer across the table at the look on Clint’s face. But Travis was right. My cousin was a rodeo cowboy, riding with the best of them. But he was married, off-limits to the girls who hung around hoping for a piece of the cowboys who won. Travis wouldn’t give them any part of him. He was loyal, even if his wife wasn’t.
“Yeah, Clint.” I shouldn’t have pushed him, but it was too easy to watch my brother puff up like he had something to prove.
“I could get any girl here,” he said, frowning as he finished his beer.
Here meant The Silver Spur. The only bar close to town, and the place every cowboy, ranch hand, and local girl could be found on a Friday night.
I’d been dying to come to this place for years. Now, it seemed so much smaller than it had in my head. Sawdust covered the floor in a fine layer, the boot tracks already showing the trail of couples dancing, even this early in the night. A honky-tonk band played, the slide guitar reminding me of summer nights at the rodeo, but this place…this was different.
“Come on, you need a shot, a beer, and a girl,” Clint said, getting up and clapping me on the shoulder. “That’s how you ring in your twenty-first.”
We’d celebrated at home the day before. Mama made my favorite, spaghetti and meatballs, for dinner, and followed it up with her prize-winning chocolate cake. It’d been nice, all being together, but this was what I’d been waiting for. My win tonight was the icing on the cake.
“Trav, you need another?” I asked. He shook his head and jutted his chin toward the group of women who had just come in. His wife and two of her friends. Sighing, I offered him a slight smile and followed Clint to the bar.
“Ten bucks says they’ll be fighting before the next band starts.”
Clint chuckled. “Twenty, if she makes a scene.”
“What can I get you, boys?” The bartender, an older woman with bleach-blond hair and tattoos covering both arms winked at me. “It’s your twenty-one run, Sammy. First shot’s on the house.”
“Tequila, Frankie,” Clint said.
She grinned and placed two shot glasses on the bar in front of us, filled them, and handed both of us a lemon wedge. Clint shook his head. “Beer chaser.”
“Happy birthday, Sam.” Frankie winked and moved on to other customers as Clint and I took up our shots.
The tequila burned all the way down into my belly, but soon I was just warm and relaxed. I leaned against the bar, watching Clint as he caught the eye of a pretty woman near the stage. “Go on,” I murmured, grabbing my beer and taking a swig. “I’m good. Go get yourself some company. You can take my buckle if you want.”
He laughed. “I don’t need your buckle to get a woman. I do just fine on my own. Not every girl wants a rodeo king.” He left me standing alone as he sauntered over to her.
An easy buzz hummed in my blood as the alcohol spread through my system. Everything took on a hazy glow, softened and heated. The sounds of people laughing mixed with the strain of the fiddle player’s solo, and before long, Clint was dancing with a girl, and—right on schedule—Trav was arguing with his wife.
Amusement curled my lips as I scanned the space. Cowboys looking for somewhere to put their boots for the night, women looking for trouble, and couples revisiting their youth. A pair of dark eyes made me stop my assessment of the bar. I knew that face. Tucker Weston, the newest ranch hand to join our crew, sat in the corner. He had his hat pulled low, hands wrapped around a beer bottle while a woman smiled and flirted with him. He’d been at the rodeo. I’d seen him roping; he was good, too.
I couldn’t look away from him as he shook his head. He must’ve turned her down because her shoulders slumped before she vacated the stool across from him. Why did that make me happy? I didn’t really know the guy. I shouldn’t have cared who he spent his time with. But…I sure as fuck did.
“Saw you on that bull, Sam. You really know how to ride.” The voice was sexy, sultry, and familiar. I turned my head to find Lyla Cameron standing next to me. Her long chocolate hair fell to her tits in shiny waves, and the blue of her shirt matched her irises perfectly. That was who Lyla was. Perfect on the outside. A mess inside.
“What do you want, Lyla?”
“Is it so wrong to want to talk to an old flame?”
Shaking my head, I brought my beer to my lips, muttering, “Flame isn’t what I’d call you.”
“All we have to do is strike a match and see where it goes.” She leaned close, running her hand over my chest. Her engagement ring glittered in the light. “Homecoming king and queen. We owe it to ourselves to see if the chemistry we have is worth exploring, Sam. I always wanted you, you know. I could have been yours if you’d have let me give you what you needed.”
I had to fight a shudder at the thought of letting her get her hooks in me. Back in high school, sure, we’d been the it couple. We’d fooled around, but I just wasn’t into her, not the way she wanted. Now? She was the last person I wanted touching me. Now that I’d started winning at the rodeo, it was amazing who came out of the woodwork looking for the popularity that came along with me. “You don’t have a damn thing I need, and by the looks of that rock on your finger, I don’t either.”
“I’m not married.”
“You’re not single either.” Catching her hand in mine, I moved her away from me. The last thing I needed was someone like her. “Find yourself another cowboy.”
She huffed and flipped her hair over one shoulder. “Maybe I will.” Then she stalked across the dance floor in search of someone who’d make a mistake with her. Whatever happened, that man wouldn’t be me.
I turned back to the bar and motioned for Frankie to bring me another. A shot, a beer, I didn’t care. She winked and brought me both. Bless her.
I downed my shot and fought a shudder, then chased it with a long gulp of beer. Fuck, I really didn’t like tequila. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a black shirt and dark, neatly trimmed beard. My stomach tightened, a flash of nervous energy rushing up my spine. Tucker was standing next to me. Why?
“You’re not drinking the right alcohol if you make a face like that when it goes down.” His voice was warm and smooth, like a piece of dark velvet rubbing my skin.
“It’s getting the job done.”
The soft rumble of his laugh made my breath tight in my chest. Why did this guy have me so on edge?
“You’re Sam Ryker, right?”
I turned my head and looked at the man. His rugged features weren’t any different from the rest of the ranch hands who lived on our property. He had the deep tan of hard summer work and the look of a man who knew how important a day off was.
He grinned, a slow smile that turned up on one side. “I’m Tucker.”
“Yeah, I know who you are. You liking the ranch?”
A slight nod was his response before he took the empty seat next to me. “Saw your winning ride tonight. Never seen anyone ride that hard.”
The praise sent warmth rushing through me. Fuck.
“Been riding bulls since I was sixteen.”
“What’s that, like five years ago?”
Shit. Yes. “You’re a roper,” I said, changing the subject. I’d watched him in action, just like he’d apparently watched me.
He shrugged. “I just do it for fun and a little extra cash. Working the land is what I love.”
“Not me. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family’s ranch. Workin’ hard makes me proud, but there’s nothing like the thrill right before that chute opens and it’s just me and that bull.”
Nodding, he took another pull from his beer. “Looks like you got someone waitin’ on you over there,” he muttered.
I frowned. If Trav or Clint wanted something from me, they’d just come right on over. “What?”
He jutted his chin toward the seat beside me where a girl had sidled up next to me. I didn’t want to pay attention to her. I’d rather talk to him. But he stood and tipped his hat. “I think this pretty lady wants a dance, Sam,” he said before leaving. “Don’t disappoint her.”
Watching him walk away, I fought the urge to go with him. He was right; the girl sitting next to me was pretty, but for the life of me, I couldn’t make myself want her.
Shit. I wanted him.
The sound of breaking glass filled the room, followed by shouts and the distinct noise of fists meeting flesh. My gaze snapped to the center of the dance floor where I saw Travis and Clint fighting three guys while Trav’s wife stood off to the side.
“Sorry, darlin’, duty calls,” I said to the girl sitting at my side. Then I rushed into the fray to help my brother and cousin.
What had been two against three quickly became a brawl I knew would shut the place down. The lights came up, blazing bright, and the band stopped playing, but that didn’t do anything to douse the flames of the fight. Clint took a right hook to the jaw, the blow knocking his hat clean off his head. Blood sprayed from his mouth and hit the floor. Anger exploded in my veins. With a snarl, I launched myself on the guy who hit my brother, tackling him to the ground and pounding his face until sirens cut through the rush of my pulse in my ears.
A pair of strong hands gripped my biceps and pulled me away. Tucker’s low grunt of “Come on, we gotta get you out of here,” vaguely registering as the crowd scattered.
“Clint and Trav,” I protested.
He tugged me out the back door of the bar and into the alley. My right eye throbbed, and something warm trickled down my cheek. Raising my fingers to gingerly touch the area, I sighed when they came away red with blood.
“Shit, he got you good.” Tucker cupped my jaw and turned my face into the light.
“I didn’t even feel it.”
He chuckled. “First night out at a bar, and you capped it off with a bar fight.”
We were both still breathing hard, bathed in the light of the moon and the stars above. I stared into those intense eyes of his and waited one heartbeat…two…before he finally released my jaw and stepped back.
“We’d better see what’s going on with Clint and Trav.”
A slight nod from him was all I got, then he shoved his hands in his pockets and started toward the mouth of the alley. I wasn’t ashamed to say I watched him walk away a little longer than I should’ve. I’d been attracted to guys before. I never acted on it, but the pull was there. Tucker was drawing me in like a moth to the fucking flame, and he didn’t even know it.
“Shit,” he breathed, stopping in his tracks. “Looks like they’re spending the night in a jail cell.”
I sighed. “Again? My dad’s gonna be pissed.”
“This happen a lot?”
“A few times a year. Trav’s a hothead where his wife’s concerned. And she just eggs him on. Honestly, I don’t know why they’re still together.”
Shrugging, he leaned against the wall. “Maybe he loves her.”
As the cop car pulled out of the parking lot with Clint and Trav in the back, dread curled in my stomach. “Fuck,” I muttered under my breath.
“Let me guess—they were your ride?”
Adjusting my hat, I nodded. “I got keys. I’ll be fine.”
He snorted and shook his head. “The hell you will. I’ll drive. You’re drunk.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he gripped my shoulder and stared me down. “Trust me, your brother will thank you for not wrapping his truck around a telephone pole tonight.”
He was right. I was drunk enough I’d been swaying on my feet since before the fight. “All right. Where’s your truck?”
* * *
Sam tipped his head back as I drove us toward the ranch. He was just this side of drunk, and I couldn’t stop myself from grinning at him as he let out a little snore.
“Hey, cowboy,” I said, giving him a slight shove as I drove through the ranch gate. “Where am I dropping you? Main house?”
He jerked awake and ran a hand over his face. “Nah, I’m bunking in the other house, the small one, with Clint.” Motioning to the right, he said, “Take that side road there. Park around back.”
I did as he instructed, pulling up behind the house and waiting for him to make a move to get out. When he didn’t, I shut off the engine and stared straight ahead at the dark windows of the quiet little place.
“Why’d you try to get me to dance with that girl tonight?”
My stomach lurched at the question. “She seemed like your type.”
“You have no clue what my type is.”
Blowing out a tense breath, I took off my hat and ran a hand through my hair. “You’re a bull rider. You could have your pick of the girls.”
“I don’t want any of them.”
“Right. Distractions are the last thing you need if you’re hoping to go pro. Gotta keep your head clear if you’re gonna stay on that bull.”
He sighed. “I need to stay focused.”
“What do you want?”
His hands were clenched into tight fists at his sides, a muscle in his jaw working as he ground his teeth.
“Sammy?” I asked, using a nickname I’d heard from his brothers.
Bright blue eyes found mine, and the flash of panic in them had me fighting the urge to touch him. I opened my mouth to ask if he was all right, but before a single word left my lips, he was on me. Sam Ryker’s kiss was frantic and desperate, tongue pressing inside and teasing mine. Fuck, I liked the way he tasted. I liked everything about him.
My hand slid over the nape of his neck in an attempt to pull him closer, but he went cold, backing away. “Shit.” It was just a whisper, but it made everything clear. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”
“Sam, what are you doing?”
“I’m not…I’ve never…”
“It’s okay. You’re drunk. I’m irresistible.” I held up both hands and offered him a slow smile. “Never happened, okay?”
He gripped the door handle and all but threw himself out of the truck, adjusting his hat on the way to the house.
Fuck. I’d just been kissed by my boss’ son. And I sure as hell kissed him back. A man who clearly hadn’t explored his sexuality until just now. I wasn’t interested in helping him figure out who he was. Not when I depended on my job here at the ranch.
Once I saw a light come on inside the house, I started the truck and headed toward the bunkhouse. My pulse thrummed in my ears, the electricity still racing across my skin from what happened with Sam. I’d just have to put it out of my mind. Forget it ever happened. Because Sam wasn’t ready for a lot of things. The least of which was me.
My boots crunched on the gravel as I walked toward the bunkhouse, the sound louder than it should have been, but I was spun up. I couldn’t go inside and face the rest of the guys. I hadn’t been here long, but this place was special. All of these people, not just the Rykers, were a family. That meant they’d wanna talk about the rodeo, about Sam and his big win. I wasn’t sure I could talk about him without getting twitchy.
So…a nighttime walk through the stables it was. I’d do one last check on the horses and then hit the hay.
The scent of cigarette smoke blended with the warm summer air, and a cell phone rang.
The low, grumbled voice of George Ryker filtered to my ears, mostly unintelligible, but I caught the words, “Again?” and, “Shit. I’ll be right there.”
His footfalls approached, a steady gait, but filled with purpose. As soon as he caught sight of me, he nodded. “Tucker.”
“Sir,” I said.
“Looks like you ended up avoiding a little time in the slammer tonight. Can’t say the same for my boys.”
“Sammy’s fine. He’s safe at home.” I blurted the words without thinking, but I didn’t want Sam to get the brunt of his dad’s anger.
Shrugging, I ran my hand over the back of my neck. “I pulled him out the back when the cops showed up. Couldn’t get to Clint and Trav in time. Sorry, sir.”
“Sam’s lucky you were there to get him out. I’d really hoped those boys would have taken it easy and avoided the bar fights for once.”
I snorted. “I haven’t been here long, but from what I gather, if it wasn’t them, it would have been someone else.”
“Well,” he said, adjusting his hat before dropping his cigarette butt on the gravel and crushing it under his boot. “I guess I’ll go rescue my wayward son and nephew. I should let the two of them sweat a little and just leave them overnight, but we got an early morning bringin’ the cows in for vaccinations. I need all hands on deck. You best let the boys know they’ll need to be ready before sunrise tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir.” I started toward the bunkhouse, but he called my name, stopping me in my tracks.
“The missus doesn’t like me smokin’. Do me a favor and keep that to yourself.”
I nodded and fought a smirk. He wasn’t fooling anyone, but I didn’t think he really was under the assumption he was getting away with anything either. “She won’t hear a word from me.”
“Good. I do appreciate you looking out for Sammy. He’s got a lot goin’ for him. After that win last night, if he keeps it up, he’ll go pro.”
My gut clenched at the thought of Sam leaving, but I shook it off. I wasn’t gonna let one kiss derail my life. It was nothing. Wasn’t it?