The pretty redhead walking toward him had to be a blood relative to the one currently staring at the third button down on his worn denim work shirt. He hoped Jolene didn't look lower and notice the tear he tried to hide by rolling up the sleeves. The woman was getting under his skin-and not in a good way.
Tyler finally tore his gaze from Emily's face and noticed what Jolene had: the huge splat of chocolate dead center between Emily's breasts. Firm and proud, cupped lovingly by a form-fitting, cropped T-shirt.
The saliva pooled in his mouth. He swallowed. The urge to devour the chocolate-covered confection caught him off guard. Digging deep for control, he realized he'd been too long without a woman: two months, three weeks, and four days... if he were counting.
He may be damned for it, but he let his gaze feast on the bounty before him. The two inches of exposed skin was tanned and taut. His gaze dipped to the hem of her denim mini skirt, and he had to swallow again. The woman had legs-curvaceous and toned, not toothpick thin-and Lord Almighty, bright green nail polish on her toes.
Emily smiled at Tyler and answered Jolene, "The spoon got caught in the mixer."
Jolene had a good three inches on Emily and an in-your-face beauty and sexuality that challenged him on every level, but there was something about the barefooted redhead with chocolate smeared across her cheekbone like a slash of war paint that tugged at his gut.
He had to fight against the urge to smile and replied, "Looks like the mixer won."
Emily lifted her right hand and the mangled spoon she clutched. "That's the second spoon today." Her sigh was long and low.
Jolene patted Emily's shoulder. "Why don't you just quit while you're ahead?"
"You know I can't until I beat the stress out of myself and this batter." Emily looked over at Tyler and asked, "Are you here to fix the sink?"
He shook his head. "Although I have been known to wrastle an ornery pipe into submission, I'm actually here about your sister's ad in the paper." For a split second disappointment clouded her pretty face and had him offering, "Maybe I could take a look at it before I leave."
Her smile blossomed slowly and was surely like a flower opening its petals to catch the rain. Before he could untangle his tongue, she said, "That's right neighborly, but I'll wait for the plumber. Oh... and she's my cousin."
"Really? You look enough alike to be sisters." Now that she was close enough to touch, he could see the subtle differences: the shape of their eyes-Emily's were long-lashed and almond shaped-and the curve of their lips-Emily's were fuller, and there was something indefinable about the barefooted redhead that went a whole lot deeper, straight to her core, a sweetness he hadn't found in long, long while.
If he were gifted with words like his New York City cousins, he'd have said there was something special about Emily and the way she seemed to smile from the inside out. But Tyler'd probably mess it up and compare her to one of the Circle G's milk cows.
Neither woman looked like they'd ever set foot on a ranch, and Emily sure as hell wouldn't believe him if he told her that certain breeds of milk cows had beautiful eyes and sweet faces. The steer he and his brothers raised for beef weren't pretty-well, they probably would be if he were another steer.
Shaking his head to clear it, he asked, "So did you save any of the batter?"
Emily's smile was slow and achingly sweet. "Enough to fill half the pan."
"Are you really going to bake half a pan's worth, Em?"
Emily grinned at her cousin. "No. That's why I decided to get another spoon and just eat the batter after I nuke it for a few seconds. Then I'll start over with another batch."
Tyler could handle cooking meat and potatoes. Baking was a whole other ballgame, but he was pretty sure it would take longer than a few seconds to cook brownies in the microwave. "That wouldn't be long enough to cook them, would it?"
Her slow, sweet smile eased under his worry about getting the job. "Brownies taste better half-cooked," Emily said. "Imagine how great the batter would taste warm and freshly whipped."
Tyler couldn't keep from grinning at the thought. Standing this close to her, he couldn't help but notice that without boots, the top of Emily's head would hit him mid-chest. He'd have to work at it to line up their lips, but if they were lying down-Whoa! Hold on there. Time enough to go there later, after he'd landed the job. If he landed the job.
"So, you're here about the position."
The hard edge in Jolene's voice had Tyler looking at her. Hell, a few positions came to mind and stubbornly got stuck there, making it hard to focus. Man, if he didn't need the money, he'd be looking for a nice quiet place to sample the chocolate-covered redhead. Head to toe and every luscious inch in between. Had she noticed him drooling over her cousin?
"I think you should hire him, Jo," Emily said, heading back the way she'd come. "See y'all later," she called out over her shoulder. "If you need me, I'll be upstairs whipping these brownies into submission. Bye, Tyler."
Lord, he'd get arrested if either woman could read his thoughts right now. One of Grandpa's favorite expressions came to mind watching the gentle sway of Emily's hips. The hitch in Emily's git-a-long was as delectable as the front of her had been, and damned if a line from a Trace Adkins song didn't start running through his brain, We hate to see her go, but love to watch her leave.
Damn, get your mind on the job, son.
Jolene asked him a question, but he was too preoccupied to pay attention. "I'm sorry, ma'am... what did you ask me?" Lord, don't let Jolene wonder if I'll be able to keep my mind on the job and off her cousin. I need this job!
Jolene was watching him closely. Finally the corner of her mouth lifted into a smile. "Are you here to apply for the position?"
"Yeah. I mean, yes, ma'am. I'm here about the job."
"You a hard working man, Mr. Garahan?" She reached out and brushed at the front of his shirt.
He shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortable now that she'd touched him. Had she meant to? "Excuse me?"
"The person I need to fill the position has to be willing to work hard."
He rubbed his fingers along the brim of his hat and wondered how to convince the woman that he'd work until he dropped. Doing's smarter than jawing. "I give one hundred percent to everything I do."
Damned if she didn't reach out and touch him again, this time he twitched as her nail flicked unerringly over his left nipple. Holy Hell!
He stepped back. Had she meant to touch him like that, or did she simply have dead-on aim? Unease roiled in his gut. He couldn't flat out ask her. If he was wrong he'd look like a fool, blow the interview, and lose his chance at the job. "Ma'am?"
"What about your temperament?" she asked, taking a step closer to him, easily closing the distance.
"I'm easy going most of the time." His eyes narrowed. Was she coming on to him, or was it some kind of test?
"So far, you have all of the qualifications I need. How's your back... strong?"
She stepped around behind him, and he wondered why she couldn't take his word for it that his back was strong and had to see for herself. The small palm cupping the seat of his Levis was all it took to answer his unasked question and end the interview.
He spun around to face her. "I don't know what kind of game you're playing or what kind of position you're hiring for, but I don't think I'm the man for the job."
Hell, usually he enjoyed an aggressive female, given the fact that free time was next to nonexistent and getting down to the good part right off meant more time in the saddle, but he'd been attracted to Emily, not Jolene, and totally missed the fact that Jolene apparently had other things in mind. At least Emily had been honest in mistaking him for a plumber. He couldn't imagine what Jolene had mistaken him for.
"I believe you're just what we're looking for." She smiled, and he wondered if anyone ever told this woman flat out no.
"Take off your shirt."
Sheer desperation grabbed a hold of his roiling gut and twisted it. Self-preservation warred with duty. "Look, I don't know what you're selling here, lady, but I'm not buying." He planted his heel, did an about-face, and strode toward the hallway. He could find another job. Had to.
"Position pays thirty dollars an hour, plus tips."
That stopped him dead in his tracks. Damn. How could he walk away from that kind of money? Without turning around he shot back, "What're the hours?"
She chuckled, and the sound grated on his nerves. "Seven o'clock to two o'clock, six days a week."
Tyler's hands shook as he did the math. Two hundred ten dollars a night? That was over a thousand dollars a week! He clenched them into fists.
"You could start tonight," she added. "And you can cash your check right here at the bar."
He could have part of the mortgage payment by the end of next week.
They could keep the Circle G.
Garahan men might be ornery when their backs were against the wall, but no one had ever accused a Garahan of being stupid. He turned back toward Jolene. "What do I have to do?"
She put her hands on her hips and called out, "Jennifer? Natalie?"
Hell, now what?
The sound of high heels hitting hardwood had him looking in the direction of the sound. The blue-eyed brunette and brown-eyed blonde walking toward him had to be blood kin. Without a word, they looked him over from head to toe and then began to circle around behind him.
"Lord love ya, Jolene," the blonde sighed. "We got us a live one."
"Are you a real cowboy?" the brunette asked, staring up at him like he was the embodiment of her childhood heroes all rolled up into one man.
He closed his eyes repeating his new mantra: I need this job... I need this job... Once he was calm, he opened them and answered, "Yes, ma'am."
"Hire him!" the blonde said.
The brunette narrowed her eyes and drew her mouth into a thin line. "Hold on sister, dear." She turned toward Jolene and asked, "Has he passed the test yet?"
His gaze shifted from the brunette back to Jolene. "Just how many kegs of beer will you expect me to move for that kind of money?" He hoped his back would hold out after putting in a full day at the ranch.
"Oh, we're not hiring you for that," Jolene said. "If you want the job, Tyler, take off your shirt."
Want? No. Need? Hell, yeah.
Need overrode want. Hell, he needed the money-fast. With his hands clenched into tight fists, he silently dug deep for the grit to do as she asked.
His gaze settled on the stage and suddenly everything clicked into place like the latch on the gate to the Circle G. The odd questions, the searching looks, waiting for his reaction to being touched suddenly made sense. For the kind of money she was offering, he'd bet every penny of it he would have to get up on that stage.
Drawing in a deep breath he cursed silently, the air inside the bar smelled like fresh rain too. They weren't hiring him to haul kegs; he was about to become their latest attraction! He lifted his hands and unbuttoned the top button. His fingers fumbled and beads of sweat formed at his temples. Better get used to it. Hell, there'd be no getting used to it.
The raptor-like gaze of the three women unnerved him, but hell, for the salary Jolene was promising him, he'd sell his soul to the devil if it'd save Grandpa's legacy... their ranch. Her amber gaze collided with his, and he wondered if his soul was already lost.
As the last button slid free, he couldn't bring himself to shrug out of the shirt. He felt so exposed standing there while the women in front of him watched him as if he was a prime cut of beef on today's blue plate special. It sure as hell wasn't the same as stripping down for one woman at a time.
Jolene's gaze met his. "Thirty dollars an hour, plus tips, Tyler."
Damn. His Celtic pride kicked in and their ancient family motto filled him: Aut Vincam, Aut Periam: I will either conquer or perish! He lifted one shoulder and let the shirt slide off. The collective gasp had him wondering if it was the thick ridge of scar tissue running along the line of his lower ribs or something else.
Then damn if the blonde didn't lick her lips like she was a cat and he was a bowl of fresh cream. "You'd better see if he passes the last test," she said with a glance at the bar. "Heck, even if he doesn't, I'd snap him up, Jolene."
The blonde walked around the bar to a door in the back, opened it, and yelled, "Gwen!"
A muffled reply sounded from below them. Just how many females worked at this bar?
"Are you ready for the last test?" Jolene asked.
Tyler's gut told him to pick up his shirt and hightail it over to one of the fast food joints. They only paid one-third of Jolene's offer, but at least he knew he could handle flipping burgers and the deep fryer. Well... maybe not the fryer, but he'd flipped burgers plenty of times for his brothers.
Indecision caught him off guard; it wasn't part of his makeup. He'd never been in this kind of tight spot before, but Dylan and Jesse were counting on him and he wasn't a coward. It wasn't in the Garahan blood. Three generations of Texas Garahans had faced Indian attacks, droughts, more than one deluge, and a handful of range wars. He would stick it out... no matter what she wanted.
A six-foot tall blonde appeared in the doorway and sauntered toward him.
Jolene smiled. "Gwen," she said slowly. "I'd like you to meet Tyler." Turning toward Tyler, Jolene smiled and nodded to the blonde giant. With a sly smile, she purred, "Pick her up."
A thousand questions raced through Tyler's head, but not one of them had included picking up the Amazon standing in front of him. "Now?"
Everyone but Gwen nodded.
He sighed and moved to scoop her up off her feet, but the woman backed away from him, hands raised up to stop him. "Not like that."
He stepped back and rubbed his now damp palms on his jean-clad legs. Were they making fun of him?
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
Jolene's laugh was as light as the afternoon breeze off the pond at the Circle G. "If you just stand still, Tyler, Gwen knows what I mean."
With a gleam in her eye, Gwen took a giant step forward and jumped. She reached for his neck with open arms and wrapped her legs around his waist, clinging like a burr to a horse's hide.
He had just enough time to blink, brace himself, and pray his back would hold out. He'd unloaded a truckload of hay before cleaning up to drive out here.
She settled against him. Hoping he wouldn't lose his grip, he slid his hands beneath her muscled backside.
Gwen leaned close and whispered in his ear, "Nice catch, cowboy."
He was too stunned to speak.
"One more thing." Jolene walked toward where he stood, legs braced apart, holding on for dear life, muscles screaming, tendons straining.
He hoped to hell he didn't have to go haul in any full kegs of beer for his next test. Poke him with a fork; he was done!
"You can set Gwen down now."
When he did as she asked, Gwen touched his cheek, smiled, and walked back toward the still open door. Distracted and disturbed by what he'd just had to do, not quite sure what it proved, he didn't see Jolene move until she was crowding him so close he could feel her breath on his chin and feel the tip of her fingernail as it tapped in the hollow of his throat.
He sucked in a breath and held it, waiting to see what else she'd ask him to do. He hated being at this woman's mercy. Suck it up, boy. Garahans go down fighting!
Gee thanks, Grandpa!
Her gaze met his, and he sensed she knew he was fighting the urge to either step back or step forward. Holding himself as still as the scarecrow in the Circle G's cornfield, Tyler waited.
She let her fingernail slide down his breastbone all the way toward his-Aw hell, she wouldn't.
She laughed-a sexy, sultry sound-as if daring him to move. "Thirty dollars, plus tips."
Thinking of the ranch and the sweat, blood, and tears three generations of Garahans had infused into the land, and not what he'd have to do to earn those tips, he froze. The sweat gathered at his temples began to trickle down the sides of his face, but he held his ground. He pictured his brothers as they rode hell-bent for leather toward the barn at the end of the day, arguing over whose turn it was to rustle up supper. He savored the memory of his mother pulling a huge turkey out of the oven during the holidays and his grandpa giving them all hell while smiling at the brothers with a gleam of pride in his eyes.
She dipped the tip of her nail in his navel and he jolted.
But he kept his hands at his sides and his face devoid of expression, even when she shocked the shit out of him, tucked her finger inside the waistband of his jeans, and yanked him flush against her saying the words he'd been both dreading and hoping to hear.
© C.H. Admirand
The Secret Life of Cowboys
Author: C.H. Admirand
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Desperate times call for desperate measures...
When Tyler Garahan said he'd do anything to save his family's ranch, he never thought that would include taking a job as a stripper at a local ladies' club. But the club's fiery redheaded bookkeeper captures Tyler's attention, and for her he'll swallow his pride...
Emily Langley feels for the gorgeous cowboy. It's obvious that he's the real deal and wouldn't be caught dead at a ladies' revue if he wasn't in big trouble. And when he looks at her like that, she'll do anything to help.
Working days on the ranch and nights at the ladies' club, Tyler would be plumb exhausted if he didn't suddenly discover that the club is in the same boat as his ranch, and his beautiful boss needs him as much as he needs her...