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Excerpt: Devil in Disguise

Excerpt: Devil in Disguise

Book 4: Portland Devils

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Ch. 1. Wyoming Summer

Owen Johnson didn’t believe in moods. He didn’t believe in weather, either. At least, not as an excuse.

What he mostly didn’t believe in was excuses.

That had worked for him growing up on a ranch, and it also worked for owning one. It worked in the NFL, too. You bet it did. A center had no excuses. It was on you to know every play the second the QB called it, to get the snap exactly right, to read the defensive line and call out the adjustments for your guys, to block your man so he couldn’t get to your quarterback, and then to block the next man who tried. If you screwed up any of that? Nobody was going to buy that it was because the sun was in your eyes or you were tired.

If you screwed up on a ranch, you lost some cattle. If you screwed up in the NFL, you lost your job. He was all clear on that.

And yet here he was, attempting to thread the hot wire in a livestock fence through a section of old garden hose for insulation while a whole bunch of cows crowded around the gate and watched in a judgmental fashion, with sweat dripping down his face and soaking his shirt and jeans in an early-summer Wyoming heat wave that was making itself felt even at ten A.M. As he fumbled with the pliers, nicked his finger, and swore. Another thing he didn’t like to do outside of football.

He was noticing the weather. He was screwing up the job. And he was in a bad mood. Hitting the trifecta.

He stopped what he was doing, breathed in, breathed out, and refocused.

Right. He was finishing this, and then he was heading up to Wild Horse, Idaho, for the night. Where he had a nineteen-year-old girlfriend.

Six years younger than him.

A girlfriend who was graduating from high school today.

And then going to college.

In a town that wasn’t where he lived during the season, and wasn’t anywhere even close to where he lived during the offseason.

So what’s bugging you most about that? he asked himself, getting back to work on the hose. Besides the high-school thing, which has been bugging you since the beginning?

That the girlfriend’s mom was pregnant with his teammate’s baby, and that mother and daughter were living with that teammate? Yeah, that was a complication. That the press was going to find out about the whole thing pretty damn soon, and was going to run with it? Annoying, but not career-ending. It wasn’t like Dyma was sixteen.

Like her mom had been when she’d given birth to her, which made her extra-protective. Understandable, and he didn’t need to be screwing up anybody else’s life, or taking their peace. Peace could be a fragile thing.

And then the final reason. Which was Dyma. You couldn’t exactly reason with Dyma, not when she had her heart set on something. Not because she wasn’t smart enough, but because she was. She’d give you a million reasons. She’d argue you straight into a corner, no letting up, and then she’d pull your head down, kiss you deep, grind up against you, and wreck all your defenses. 

Dyma, who was too damn cute and too damn smart, and was headed into all her adventures.

He took off his hat and wiped his face with a bandana, then shoved the hat back on, got his hot wire threaded through the hose and fastened to the gate at last, and told the cows, “Show’s over, girls. That big ol’ Number 11 and a couple more boyfriends are going to be showing up here any minute, so get ready for some action. I’m guessing you can keep them occupied enough to keep from breaking through this gate, but better safe than sorry.”

They flicked their ears against the flies, looked at him out of doe-like eyes, chewed their cuds, and acted unimpressed. When his prize bull, Marble Hill Ranch Number 11, got here, they’d change their minds fast, because cows were like that.

There was going to be a whole lot of sex happening today. Too bad it was all going to be happening to cows.

The tail of dust that had announced itself a mile back morphed into a dusty pickup pulling a livestock trailer, and Owen’s brother Dane hopped down, making Owen’s horse, Grizzly, turn his massive deep-bay head, twitch his black tail, and stare with a whole lot more intelligence than the cows had shown.

Dane slammed the pickup door, hitched up his belt, and said, “You just finishing the fences up?”

“Yep.”

“Better hurry if you want to make that flight,” Dane said. “Don’t know why you didn’t take an ATV instead. Though it’d probably be just as well if you stayed home, if you ask me.”

“Yeah?” Owen stowed his tools in Grizzly’s saddlebags. “I don’t remember asking you, though.”

Dane said, “So what’s the end game here? Just asking the obvious question, because, yeah, she’s probably the exact opposite of Ashley, from the pictures, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work out any better. Swapping out a twenty-five-year-old swimsuit model for an eighteen-year-old kid? What part of this doesn’t end up in, ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ again? Not to mention, ‘I just don’t see myself on a ranch’? Amy’s got that friend, Heather, just got divorced, and brother, she’s looking. She likes you, too. She’s even short and blonde. Could be from a bottle, but …”

“Yeah,” Owen said. “See, it’s not the short-and-blonde part that matters. It’s the woman. And Dyma’s nineteen.”

“You don’t have to marry somebody to get over that hump, you know,” Dane said. “Can’t believe I’m having to tell you this, but you got to get back in the saddle again. Divorce was final, what, six, seven months ago? Amy says it’s …” He waved a hand. “Some kind of psychological thing. That you want a girl who has all those obstacles in the way, because you’re scared of getting involved again. When you could just head down to the Outlaw on any Saturday night instead and get your heart broke for free.”

From the back of the trailer, a bull bellowed, and another joined in. Not too surprising. A bull could smell a cow in heat from six miles away, and these guys were more like sixty yards from their recreational opportunity. Owen said, careful to keep it neutral, since Dane didn’t always love to be reminded who actually owned Marble Hill, “Better go on. They’re going to kick out the back of the trailer if you don’t take them on in.”

It wouldn’t be through the same gate. That led to too much excitement, and to fights, because that was bulls. You took them into the pasture well away from the cows, and let them find each other in Love’s True Flowering. Which could make him wonder why Dane had stopped here, except that he wasn’t wondering. He knew. He decided to add, “And, yeah, I’m not going to be getting any action tonight. You’re right about that. Not for any kind of psychological reason. For my reasons. And stop talking about me with Amy.”

“Can’t. She thinks you’re fascinating,” Dane said, but at least he was climbing up into the cab again.

“Except I’m not.” Owen was a rancher. He was an NFL center. In that order, probably, if he bothered to think about it, which he didn’t. There was no point. You knew what the job was for that day. You went out and did it. And the next day, you did the same thing.

The bulls bellowed again, the cows answered, and Dane looked at him, shook his head, and put the truck in gear. Grizzly tossed his big head, and Owen asked him, “What, you got an opinion too?” He swung himself up into the gelding’s saddle and clicked his tongue, the broad-backed Percheron crossbred broke into a shambling trot, and they headed back to the ranch house with just about enough time for a shower, a shave, and a fast drive to the Cheyenne airport.

Just in time to get his heart broke. What could he say? No choice. 

He always had a choice. He always made a choice. He lived his life in the sunshine, but he was in the dark with this.

Total eclipse of the heart.

 

Ch. 2, On the Edge

Dyma Cardello was, as of this moment, a high-school graduate.

It wasn’t much, just the first step on a long, long road to what she wanted. Which was a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, and then a job. Doing … doing something engineering-like with spacecraft Something exciting. Something far away from Wild Horse, Idaho.

Meanwhile, she was a high-school graduate, and in late September, she was starting her bachelor’s program at the University of Washington, over in Seattle. That degree was only going to take her three years even with a job, because she’d busted her butt already, finishing her high-school career with nine 5’s and three 4’s in her AP classes, which had gotten her a scholarship and, just as importantly, added almost a year and a half of college credit, seriously reducing her eventual debt and speeding her along her path.

The 4’s were in things she didn’t care about, but that she needed to get out of the way. English. History. Psychology. Those classes were nothing but words, words, words. Fuzzy and imprecise and ill-defined, so that all you had to do was be logical and remember a few facts and know how to construct an argument, and bam, there was your A. There wasn’t even a wrong answer in English class! It was all just opinion, and she wanted to be right. She wanted to know she was right.

Around her, the sea of red gowns swirled and parted as families and graduates found each other on the lawn outside the gym. Beside her, Andrea Broadbank said, “A bunch of us are meeting up by the lake later, after family dinners and things, if you want to come.”

“She’s not going to want to come,” Matt Atkins said, his straight black hair hanging to his shoulders below his mortarboard in a way Dyma had once found sexy. “She’s moved on already.”

 “Hey,” Dyma said. “I have not. I still want to geek out, and there’s nobody to do that with in Portland.” She felt a little guilty saying it, but it was true. Annabelle, her mom’s boyfriend’s sister, who had the bedroom next to hers in Harlan Kristiansen’s massive and truly weird Portland house, was great, now that she’d come out of her shell some, but she wasn’t a geek. She was a jock all the way, like her brother. Dyma had tried to introduce her to the world of gaming over the past month, but Annabelle’s leg would start jiggling after about twenty minutes, and after thirty, she’d burst out with something like, “Let’s go swimming.” Which wasn’t exactly a hardship, not when the pool was right there in the house, but it wasn’t geeking out, either. And as they’d both finished the school year via remote learning, Dyma didn’t know anybody else in Portland at all. It was all family time, all the time.

She was so ready for that to change. A summer job would help. College would help more.

Matt said, “I doubt your boyfriend wants to geek out.”

Fawn Henderson, whose hair was black, too, because she’d dyed it that way after her latest self-inflicted haircut, said, “Her boyfriend won’t let her geek out, you mean. Talk about going over to the dark side. You going to try out for cheerleading next year in college, too? You could grow your hair and bounce around shaking your pom-poms and decorating the football team’s bus, when you aren’t throwing themed birthday parties with your sorority sisters. With cupcakes! Ooh! Fun!”

“Nope,” Dyma said. “He’s one guy, not a lifestyle, and he doesn’t tell me what to do. I’m not living in a sorority. Nobody’d want me for a sorority. Are you kidding?”

“You know,” Fawn said, “I suspect you’re wrong.” She had even more piercings in her ears than Dyma did, and right now, they looked like they were bristling, even though her voice was a drawl. “You think that NFL magic isn’t going to rub off on you, the second they find out who he is? Who had the cheerleaders inviting her to sit with them at prom? It was like you got sucked into the Popular-Girl bubble. How’s your selfie game coming along, anyway? Do any videos in your shortie PJs yet? That’s probably part of Rush Week. Congratulations. You’re in the cult.”

“Except that I didn’t sit with them,” Dyma said. “Why are you being such an asshole?”

“Because she’s jealous,” Matt said.

“Because you’re jealous, you mean,” Fawn shot back. “Who’d you invite to prom again?”

Matt’s thin cheeks flushed dark. He’d asked Dyma, but she’d already had a date. She’d had no idea he even wanted to go, except that she probably had, because before Owen, they’d been edging closer to dating. That had been reasonably exciting, even though Dyma had known she was going to have to make the first move again, and who wanted to do that every single time?

It didn’t matter, though, because she’d already had a date.

A group of girls with long, shiny hair ran by—yes, they were cheerleaders—holding onto their mortarboards, and one of them called out, “Congratulations, Dyma! We made it! Whoo-hoo!”

Fawn said, “I rest my case.”

Dyma barely heard, because the crowd was parting like the Red Sea, and there they were. Her mom, Jennifer, who was being treated extra-nicely tonight because of the company she was keeping, which was fine, and fair, and all that, because her mom had been through enough, thanks to Dyma arriving when Jennifer was barely sixteen. Not to mention Dyma’s father going to prison for it. An auspicious start in the world.

She was really looking forward to that U-Dub anonymity. She’d be an engineering student, a mouthy geek with too many piercings and an attitude, and that was all. Not the rapist’s daughter, and there’d be nobody she had to hit when they talked smack about her mom, either. Talk about a relief. She hadn’t been suspended since the tenth grade, but that was only because her smackdowns were verbal now.

That wasn’t because she was only five-two, because if you were mad enough and willing to take a punch, you could usually win even if you were small. Most girls were wimps. They retreated. Dyma didn’t believe in retreat. But she was even better with her mouth than she was with her fists, and you didn’t get suspended for giving somebody a sick burn. All you got afterwards was a little trembling from the adrenaline rush, not sore knuckles, a trip to the principal’s office, and a call to your grandma.

She’d had no choice but to stop fighting anyway, because her grandma had died at the beginning of senior year, and the fighting had been their secret, like so many other things. She felt the familiar wave of desolation, the empty space where her grandma would have been, and as usual, didn’t know what to do about it, so she thought about something else instead. Her great-grandpa Oscar, following after her mom, his face breaking into a smile at sight of her. That was OK.

She missed Grandpa Oscar, too, because he’d refused to come to Portland with her and her mom. It was comforting, though, to know that he was still here. That something had stayed the same, anyway. She wanted to change. She didn’t want everything else to change. But she hadn’t had a choice.

Which brought them to the guy holding her mom’s hand and looking like he wanted to make sure everybody saw him do it. Harlan Kristiansen, Jennifer’s movie-star-handsome, wide-receiver boyfriend, and the father of the baby boy who was going to be, weirdly, Dyma’s nineteen-years-younger brother. Like her mom hadn’t even waited to get her out of the house before starting Act II. Which was fine, of course, because Jennifer could be seriously overprotective, and Dyma needed to start her real life without all that scrutiny and judgment, thank you very much. She wanted to make mistakes.

Moving on was fine. She was excited about moving on.

Then there was Harlan’s sister, Annabelle, who was as tall and blonde and Nordic-perfect as Harlan, but didn’t really seem to know it. And Blake Orbison, former quarterback of the Portland Devils. Also Dyma’s mom’s boss and Wild Horse’s formerly most-eligible bachelor—by about a mile—here with his wife, Dakota Savage, who was effortlessly cool and never seemed to even notice the extra attention she got these days.

Dyma kind of wanted to be Dakota. Less artistic, because hello, she wasn’t. U-Dub made you take an arts class to graduate, which meant visual art, creative writing, or theater. She’d been told to take it during her freshman year, since it would be easy compared to the other classes on her schedule. Nobody understood that the arts class was the one thing she was actually dreading. Some people feared organic chemistry. She feared being asked to create something. If they said, “Here’s how to draw a tree,” and you followed the directions and drew the tree like that? That was the kind of art class she could get behind. Instead, they’d tell you to “create” something, “using the idea of a tree.” Like what?

Same with creative writing. She’d had to do that, sophomore year. She’d just used the plots of video games. Fortunately, high-school English teachers didn’t game all that much, but who knew about professors? She’d be bound to get the one college professor who played World of Warcraft in her spare time.

So, no, she didn’t want to be Dakota. She wanted to be like Dakota, maybe. She might be able to manage that. She was all good on attitude.

And then there was Owen. Whose roar she’d heard all the way from the top of the bleachers when she’d walked across the stage with her gold high-honors cord around her neck, trying to tell herself this whole thing was lame, and unable to feel anything but thrilled about it. Owen, whose bearded face was creased by a smile as big as the rest of him, whose broad-shouldered, heavy-chested, six-five frame was dressed in jeans and boots that added another inch to his height, not to mention the brown cowboy hat he wore just about everywhere.

He took up half the deep-blue, late-evening Idaho sky, and as soon as he appeared, he was all she saw. She was running, her heart slamming in her chest, her mortarboard flying off her head. Running toward Owen’s smile, wide as Wyoming, seeing his big arms coming out to grab her.

She leapt, and he caught her, held her off her feet, and twirled her. And then he kissed her.

It wasn’t like she’d never been kissed before. She’d been kissed plenty—she’d kissed plenty, too—and she’d liked it. She’d liked it a lot.

They said men ached to the point of pain from unfulfilled desire, or call it what it was: too much blood to the genitals for too long a time. Well, she couldn’t believe any guy had ever ached the way she did. Women had erectile tissue, too, and it got every bit as engorged as a man’s. Especially if the man she was kissing was Owen, because nobody she’d ever kissed was Owen Johnson, and no teenage boy’s hands felt on her body like his huge ones did, completely rough and absolutely gentle at the same time. Nothing felt like having his arms wrapped around her, or being held up effortlessly against his chest with a single arm while she gripped a massive shoulder with one hand and got the other one behind his head to kiss him better.

The way he held her—it was like you were safe, but you weren’t. Like there was so much more there for you, almost within your reach. Like you wanted everything, and he knew it, and you knew that he could give you every bit of it. And that when he did, it would take forever.

The kiss didn’t last nearly long enough, but she was tingling all over anyway by the time he set her down. Her knees were trembling, too.

She hadn’t had an idea, before. She hadn’t had a clue. Just seeing him walking toward her was a head rush. And a groin rush.

And he was always, always telling her no. After prom, when he’d driven her home, parked in her driveway, kissed her in the car for about an hour, and then told her to go inside. When he’d come up for her nineteenth birthday a few weeks ago, and they’d gone hiking above the lake and had ended up sitting on a log. That time, he’d gotten his hand up under her shirt, and it had felt … amazing. Like her body was a circuit, and his hand and mouth closed it. She could still close her eyes and feel that rush, and she did. Every night.

And then, of course, he’d stopped. Because, he’d said every time, she was in high school, and he didn’t sleep with high-school girls. Last time, he’d stared at her, his face serious, nearly scary, and said, “No. That’s a hard no.” In his deepest, most no-nonsense voice, with that edge of roughness to it, which had been a thrill all its own.

But she wasn’t in high school anymore.

 

Ch. 3 – Dragon Wings

A couple hours later, and Owen had sat through dinner with the whole gang. He’d given Dyma her graduation present, which was a pair of chunky, industrial-looking, white-gold hoop earrings with a discreet diamond set into each. They were from Cartier, but they didn’t look like it, which he figured was a compromise.

Earrings weren’t a good enough present. They were going to have to do anyway, because a car was out. It had been clear to him, even as he was scrolling makes and models, that it would be wrong. Too much pressure. She couldn’t accept it, and he shouldn’t give it.

He could have found somebody easier. Anybody would have been easier. Unfortunately, his heart wasn’t listening, and every time he saw her, it got worse.

Which was why he’d had a serious talk with Dyma’s mom a few minutes back. It wasn’t easy to tell a girl’s mom, however obliquely, that you weren’t sure how much longer you’d be able to hold out before you had sex with her daughter, but when you had to do something, you went ahead and did it.

It hadn’t gone horribly, except that she’d told him she trusted “your heart and your honor.”

So no pressure there.

Now, though, family time was over, the bright light of midsummer was fading, there was a little pink on the mountains and the still waters of the lake, and he was asking Dyma, “Want to go out and celebrate a while?” Another idea that wasn’t half awkward to express in front of her mom and great-grandfather, which was exactly the reason he wanted to go somewhere else.

“Only about as much as I want to design spacecraft,” Dyma said, which was, yes, their whole impossible deal in a sentence.

Owen told Jennifer, “We’ll head back around midnight.”

She said, “You know—I probably don’t get to insist on that anymore.”

Jennifer looked at her grandfather, and he said, “Don’t ask me. What do I know? I’m eighty-five. The rules keep changing on me.”

“You mean you don’t think we should have a big angsty discussion about choices?” Dyma asked, the life just about vibrating from her. She was wearing a strappy little blue dress that should have had flowers on it, except that she’d told Owen she didn’t like flowered clothes. “Rigid gender roles,” she’d informed him. “As if only women can like flowers. I refuse to reinforce that.”

“Never mind,” he’d said. “I figured that one out already.” He was just thankful for that little dress, and the way it showed off her tight little body. Privately thankful. He wasn’t mentioning gender roles and clothing. He wasn’t stupid.

“No,” Jennifer said serenely, and he tried to remember what they’d been talking about. “At this point, I have to figure I’ve had enough big angsty discussions with you, Dyma. Either they’ve sunk in or they haven’t. Not much I can do about it now.”

“Careful,” Dyma said, looking a little taken aback, or like she’d been looking forward to the argument, which she probably had. “That’s dangerously egalitarian.”

“Yep,” her mother said. “And yet here we are. At some point, the baby bird hops out to the edge of the nest and takes off on her own.”

“That’s right,” Oscar said.

Everybody else said nothing. They just watched.

Dyma said, “Oh—Annabelle, some of my friends are meeting up later down at the lake, if you want to go. It’d be cool with them for you to hang too. You’ve met all of them before.”

“That’s OK,” she said. “I’m good.”

Dyma hesitated, and that was the best of her, Owen thought. She finally said, “We’ll hang out tomorrow, all right?”

“Seriously,” Annabelle said, flushing a little, “I’m good.”

When they were in Owen’s rental car, though, and she’d stowed her graduation gifts carefully in the back, she didn’t practically climb on top of him like she normally would, as if she wanted to test his self-control right then and there. She didn’t say anything, in fact. He asked, his hand on the key but not turning it, “Doing all right?”

“What? Yeah.” She frowned out the window as if she didn’t see any of it—the lake, the sky, the mountains, the approaching darkness—and said, “I’m feeling self-centered. So you know. And I’m hating it. Look, I get that graduating from high school is no big deal. Just about everybody does it. I don’t need to be some diva about it.”

For once, he was the one leaning across the center console of the SUV. He put an arm around her, kissed her cheek, and said, “No. It’s a big deal. When I graduated, you bet it felt like a huge deal. Like my life starting, finally. Finishing college a few years back was a big deal, too. And the draft. That was another huge one.”

“Because that was on TV, and you were a big deal. Which I’m not.”  

“Doesn’t matter. You get to be the star of your show tonight.” He didn’t like big emotional talks himself, but he forced himself to go on. “It’s an occasion, that’s all. People like occasions. It’s a big deal to your mom, for sure. She’s proud. It’s all right to let her be proud. She did a good job. She has a right.”

“OK,” she said. “So how do we celebrate?”

“Well,” he said, “I thought we could go dancing. I bought you something for that. Hang on.”

* * *

He’d wrapped the box. In Christmas paper, but still, he’d wrapped it. She ripped it open with no care at all.

He’d already given her a graduation present, though. So …

It was cowboy boots. Silver ones, and not too tall, which was good, because it wasn’t very far from her ankles to her knees. They had stars and swirls stamped into the leather, studs decorating the edges, and a sort of feathery cutout effect going on, like you were wearing dragon wings. And they were in her size.

She sat, stroked her hand over the soft leather, the intricately carved surfaces, and said, “Wow.”

He said, “They wouldn’t be much use for ranch work, but they’d sure look good with that dress you’re wearing.”

“So I’m a cowgirl now?” she asked. Trying to tease him, trying to think if this meant … well, you know, anything, besides that he’d given her boots. Gorgeous boots. She didn’t have a single snarky thing to say about these boots.

“I sure hope so,” he said. “If you want to be.” And just sat there, which was no help at all. Was this some kind of rancher declaration, of wanting her to be in his life more? Or more fully? Or what?

He wasn’t saying, so she got out of her sandals, which involved some acrobatics—he’d rented an SUV, but it wasn’t all that big—and got the boots on over her bare feet. He said, “I should have thought of socks.” But he was really watching her, because her dress had ridden all the way up her thighs. She kept her feet up on the dash for the moment and admired the boots, which she suspected hadn’t come from Payless, and Owen cleared his throat and said, “You should take your feet down before I start driving. Dangerous to have them up there. Accidents.”

“Why?” she asked. “Because I’m too heart-stoppingly sexy, and you’re going to crash looking at my legs?”

A ghost of a smile. “Maybe. And also because of physics. The airbag can drive your knees straight into your eye sockets.”

“Wow. Thanks for the attractive image.” She put her feet down, but she also said, “You realize that I’m not old enough to drink, and the only good place to go dancing around here is the Silver Spur, which is a bar. Also that I don’t really know how to dance.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I thought of all that. Wait and see.” And started the car.

He hadn’t even kissed her, though. She’d sat through that whole dinner, tingling with the awareness of his body beside her, the knowledge that she wasn’t in high school, and she was nineteen, and his scruples had to be put to rest now, and he didn’t even need to kiss her? She wanted to say something, but she’d said so many things already.

Holding back wasn’t her best thing, but she was going to do it anyway. She was going to wait and see.

Also not her best thing.

* * *

He’d about had a heart attack when she’d put her feet up like that in those silly, pretty boots and the skirt of the deceptively innocent little dress had dropped to the tops of her thighs. Pale blonde hair and piercings—he still didn’t know what other piercings she had, besides her eyebrow and her ears and her navel, and you could say he wanted to find out—and a tattoo of Bernoulli’s Equation around her bicep. He’d bet she had another tattoo somewhere, and he wanted to know about that, too.

And then she put her hand on his thigh.

You wouldn’t think he’d even feel it. Her hand wasn’t that big, and his thigh definitely was. All the same—he felt it.

He cleared his throat and said, “Another thing that isn’t smart to do.”

“Why?” she asked. “You clearly have absolute self-control.”

He sighed. “Dyma …” After that, he couldn’t think what to say, so he shut up and tried to ignore the fact that he was already hard. Not an easy thing to ignore. She’d see it, too, because there was no hiding that, not in Wranglers. So he just drove.

Eventually, though, he was slowing for the turnoff to the Silver Spur, which was hopping some at nearly ten o’clock Friday night, and pulled into a parking spot.

Kiss her now? No. If he kissed her now, they wouldn’t make it out of the car for a good long time, and he needed to do this. Besides, it gave him a charge to tell her no. It was probably sick of him, but it did. Dyma getting excited, and him telling her no? It gave him a charge.

He’d have said that he was a pretty vanilla guy between the sheets, compared to the stuff you heard about. Ashley had mentioned it, and not in a good way. You could call her comments on the subject a parting shot, and they’d landed. But what could you do? When you went around hurting people for a living, you didn’t have much taste for torture, or whatever it was you were supposed to do. You just wanted to touch and kiss and love up on a woman for a good long time, preferably with some music playing and a couple of candles burning, and enjoy all that … softness. At least, that was how it worked for him.

Now, though, he was starting to get the idea. Maybe the girl just had to tease you until the top of your head was about to blow off to put you in the mood.

Dyma hopped out before he could open her door, of course, the way she always did. He’d mentioned it in the past, and she’d said, “Why? I can open a door, Owen. I have opposable thumbs and everything.” Now, she came sashaying around the car, still looking just fine in those boots, which he was pretty sure she liked, pulled her hair out of her eyes with one hand, which was a sexy little look all its own, and said, “You can tell the bouncer here about the NFL, I guess. He might be super impressed and ask for a selfie with you, but he still isn’t going to let me in. Wild Horse takes its liquor licenses seriously. I know you probably had a fake ID, or maybe nobody ever checked, being the hometown hero and also huge, which makes you look older, but in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not huge, and I don’t exactly look thirty, either. They’re going to card me.”

He said, “Shut up. I’m being romantic,” and pulled something else from the back of the car.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Bluetooth speaker. Never mind.” He took her hand and led her down to the dock by the public wharf. Tiny wavelets slapped against the piers, and a few boats bobbed gently where they were tied, folks who’d boated across the lake for the evening, then would head back across the water again after dark.

Huh. That would be romantic. If he knew anything about boats, anyway. Not a whole lot of boats in Wyoming. If the boat sank or you banged it into the dock, possibly not so romantic. He’d go with what he knew.

Up by the road, the door to the bar opened and released a burst of music and laughter, but out here, the shadows were getting longer, the light getting pinker, the breeze lifting the edge of Dyma’s skirt, and he knew this was right. This was perfect.

He set his speaker down carefully by the edge of the dock and said, “We’ll use this after a bit. For now, here’s the deal. I’m teaching you to dance, Wyoming style.” He smiled down at her, feeling that same surge of rightness he always got, then pulled her up close with one hand around her waist, heard her catch her breath, and realized why she killed him the way she did. Because there was no way Dyma could fake anything. He took her hand in his and said, “Other hand on my shoulder, then it’s just quick-quick slow-slow, over and over, plus a few … patterns. That’s it. You go backward and I go forward, except when I spin you around so you’re going forward with me for a little while. Don’t worry, I’ll be letting you know exactly what to do. All you have to do is remember to start on your left foot and follow me. You’re kind of dancing on the toes of your boots, and if I’m going to lead a turn, it’ll be on the quick-quick. I’ll let you know when I’m going to spin you. Ready to try?”

She said, “This is your romantic gesture? All right, it’s pretty cool, and I wouldn’t have guessed it, but tell me we take turns doing the, uh, leading, at least. That I get to go forward sometimes.”

He smiled. Nice and slow. “Nope. Not the way this deal works. The leading’s all me, all the time. You’re going where I put you. Get used to it.”

“I think I object,” she said, but you bet she was breathless now. “Dancing is incredibly sexist. Relic of the patriarchy. Probably why I never learned.”

“Yep. That’s why it’s hot. Call it role playing.” Which gave him a major charge. Maybe that tended to happen when you deprived yourself for months on end. Or maybe it was Dyma.

She said, “All right. That’s hotter.”

“Yeah. It is.” He was never going to make it through this night. “Still down for it?”

“I guess. But so you know? I was more thinking about breaking my nineteen-year drought. I can’t wait any more, Owen.” That was some big blue eyes, and a little pleading, too. Worked for him.

“Trust me,” he said. “Stuff’s going to happen. This’ll make it better.”

 

Ch. 4 – Redneck Rodeo

If only the shadows weren’t so purple, the sky so streaked with red. If only the moon weren’t coming up over the mountains. If only Owen weren’t so big and strong and impossibly coordinated, and he didn’t make it so easy, coaching her, teasing her, spinning her so effortlessly that she felt like she actually could dance. If only the cowboy boots didn’t feel so genuine, making her feel like she fit with him, in his own hat and boots, in a way she’d never fit in Wild Horse in her life. Making her feel like she could ride a horse and dance in a bar and drive a man crazy with her powerful femininity.

Yeah. Not so much. She wasn’t romantic. She wasn’t girly. She was logical, and she was too smart and mouthy and way too intimidating for most guys. For almost any guy, if she were honest.

But she wasn’t intimidating to Owen, and she was having fun. She was going someplace she’d never gone before, or only when she was caught up in the perfect symmetry of mathematics, solving an equation, feeling the tumblers click into place. All the way focused. All the way here.

That was before he started the music. After that, she was laughing and messing up and having him catch her in his arms, twirl her again, and get her settled opposite him to start over. He wasn’t pulling her close, but she was so aware of him, and moving in such synchronicity with him, it felt like her heart was beating with his.

Another song, now, and he said, “This is a fast one. Get ready to move.”

It was fast, the drumbeat driving the guitars, the guy singing like the whole thing was nothing but funny. A song about a pretty girl in a little tank top pressed up close to the guy in the front seat, about driving too fast, because her dad was coming after both of them with his shotgun. About dancing too close, his hand dipping too low, lost in the music and the lights and the night, until somebody else made a move on her, he punched the guy in the face, and they both had to run out of there fast. About how the night should have ended before they got into even more trouble, but how he had to take the chance again, because he couldn’t resist her, and he was too carried away.

It was all the way out of her comfort zone, the kind of twangy music she’d always hated, the kind of redneck humor she’d always mocked. She was going to be a different person than that, she’d vowed. An urban person. An urbane person. She’d loved that word when she’d discovered it. Smooth and sleek and effortlessly composed and confident.

And still Owen twirled her, then twirled her again, until she was dizzy. Her feet moving in little steps, quick and light, his hand so strong around hers, his arm impossibly sure, like the thought of the movement was going from his body into hers.

Until she got too close to the edge in the darkness and stumbled, then tripped over the raised edge of the dock and started to fall backward, the shock of it taking her breath, aware in that split second that she was about to hit the cold water.

She didn’t. He still had his hand on her waist, and he was keeping his balance, somehow, grabbing her tighter, pulling her back again almost before her heart could start beating faster.

“Whoops,” he said, a laugh in his voice. “Sorry.”

“My … fault,” she managed to say. “New boots. Or just clumsy.”

“Nope. Told you. I’m in control of this. My fault.”

That shouldn’t have sounded so good. She didn’t have time to think it through, though, because he was taking her straight into the next song.

Over and over, until she had it. Until she was all the way to that redneck rodeo and staying on the bull. Until she was flying, not thinking about the steps anymore, relaxing into his hands. Swept away on the warm night, on the darkness, on the feel of her cotton skirt twirling high around her bare thighs. Until the song faded into silence without another one starting up again, and he bent her back over his arm in a dip, pulled her up again, twirled her about three more times, then pulled her up against his body.

He didn’t kiss her. He said, “Slow one coming up. You ready?”

She couldn’t even answer for a second. She just felt his warmth, the hardness of his belt buckle against her diaphragm, and finally said, “Yeah.”

He smiled, just a little. It was too dark to tell, really, so maybe she sensed it. He pulled the phone from his back pocket, pressed a button, and said, “Same position as before. Just a little bit closer.”

A plaintive wail of guitar, the kind that got in your heart and squeezed it, and she settled her hand more firmly on his impossibly broad shoulder and waited until he started to dance.  

Another spin, hypnotically slow. Another dip, feeling her hair brush over her cheek and her dress slide up her legs. Another dreamy episode of her feet sliding with his, her face pressed into his chest, feeling the beat of his heart.

And hearing the song, because Owen was singing it under his breath like he’d chosen it for this moment. For her. A pretty simple message, and such a sweet one, saying that he’d fallen so hard and so fast for the look in her eyes, for the way she shone. That she looked good in that smile.

The exact same way she felt about him.

She still didn’t like country music. But she liked this. It was all so sweet, it nearly hurt. 

She could still feel his heart. Beating fast, surely faster than a professional athlete’s heart should beat. She could feel the rest of him, too. Impossible not to notice. That was a shivery thrill, like when he’d taken her skiing on the second day she’d known him. Looking down that hill, throwing your heart over the edge, and sending your body tumbling after.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t wanted to check him out before, all those times they’d kissed in the car, in the woods. It wasn’t like she hadn’t wanted to notice. It was surprisingly embarrassing, though, not to know what to do next.

She’d watched porn, of course, like anybody with computer access. It just happened, though, in porn. Nobody had to ask questions or decide anything, nothing was embarrassing, and nobody was awkward. Whereas in her real life, it had always been awkward, going from kissing to touching, knowing when to say no, trying to figure out why she wanted to say no. And these past months, Owen had ended it before they got anywhere close. She’d been going backward instead of forward, and she was finally ready to go forward.

She needed to know what would happen next, and how every bit of it would feel. But she needed to dance with him, too.

She pressed herself closer, put her cheek against his chest, felt the muscle through the damp cotton of his white button-down shirt, and for once in her life, couldn’t think of anything to say. They wheeled together on the dock through that song and the next one, floating in a dream, the sky a black bowl pierced by a thousand pricks of silver, with the touch of a breeze coming off the water. She smelled the clean man’s scent of him, felt the hard slab of shoulder muscle under her palm, the bulk of his thighs moving against hers, and let him spin her until the last note died.

When it was over and she was against him again, he didn’t move, and neither did she. His chest rose and fell under her cheek, his hand was strong around hers, and the dock rocked softly underneath them.

Finally, she had to speak. What she said wasn’t what she’d planned. It was, “I love you.”

His hand tightened on her waist, and he said, “You can’t.”

“Yes,” she said. “I can. And I do.”

* * *

He didn’t want to believe in this. He never had. It was going to hurt in the end, however good it felt before that. It was a dangerous as injecting heroin into your vein, and he could resist it exactly that much.

In other words, not at all.

He held her close for a second more, telling himself, Remember this, and then he picked her up with one arm, felt her arms twine around his shoulders like vines around an arbor, bent his head, and kissed her.

Lips as warm and sweet as candy. The scent of her, like fresh air and clean laundry on the line and flowers, because her secret, feminine heart, underneath all the intelligence and all the rationality and all the sardonic humor, still believed in flowers. The lithe young body, the poreless texture of her skin, and the hand that was on his cheek now, holding him.

He’d just thought, Need to take off my hat, when she was doing it. Holding it flat against his back, and her mouth leaving his, trailing kisses across his cheek, over to his neck, below the beard. She was burying her face there, breathing against him, making him shudder, and whispering, too close to his ear, “I need you so much.”

He was lost.

When he let her go, she shivered. The northern-latitudes chill had arrived with the darkness, and he’d been too wrapped up in her to notice. He said, “Come on. Let’s get you warm,” the words coming out choked.

Up the path to the car, pulling his jacket out of the back seat and wrapping it around her, then having to pick her up and kiss her again, up against the car this time, because she was right there. And when he did it, her legs wrapped around his waist like she knew how to do that. His lips were at the double bad-girl rings in her eyebrow, his hand at the back of her neck, cupping it. Holding her there.

This wasn’t controlled. This wasn’t safe. This was dangerous.

In the car, then, when he couldn’t stand not to be going somewhere with this, cranking the heat as she shivered some more, then driving to the resort, arguing with himself the whole way. About life experience and money and not even starting college yet and six years of age difference, and never mind that his mom had told him last week in her kitchen, apropos of nothing or everything, “The one consolation for the horror of getting my grays colored and looking at myself under those lights for two hours is that no matter how old I get, your dad’s still older. He was Aunt Tammy’s oldest brother, did I ever tell you that? That it was really Aunt Tammy who started it all, because she was my best friend? He was done with high school before I even started. But when I stopped being so little and he noticed me, he listened to me, and he laughed at my jokes, and somehow, in between being impossibly manly and sexy and competent—” She’d laughed at his grimace—“he became my best friend. I’m not even sure how that happened.”

“Uh-huh,” he said. He was bringing in her groceries at the time, running over from the shop to help her with them as soon as she’d started hauling them out of the car, the way he’d always done. Now, he started putting them away in the fridge.

“He always said I was more mature than he was,” she went on, ripping the top off a bag of flour and dumping it into the big canister. “I think that just meant that I thought about the washing machine when he was thinking about a new truck, though.”

He said, “I’m going to take a guess on why you’re telling me this, and tell you that Dyma isn’t more mature than me.”

“Well,” she answered cheerfully, “that’s probably because you’re an old soul. Maybe she brings you something else you need. Maybe she makes you laugh and makes you think. Maybe she makes you feel strong. That probably isn’t a terrible feeling. Maybe she lets you forget about the washing machine for a little while.”

He was sure as hell forgetting about the washing machine now. Dyma’s hand wasn’t on his thigh as he drove this time, and it didn’t matter. He felt her like she wasn’t all the way across the car. Like she was imprinted on him the same way she’d been back there on that dock. Against this car.

And then they were at the resort again. Where she was sharing a room with Annabelle, and he was sharing a room with nobody.

Coming June 1, 2021
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