by: Donna Michaels
Series: The Men of At Ease Ranch
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: November 28, 2016
Publisher: Entangled Lovestruck
Former Army Ranger Stone Mitchum doesn’t have time for sex. Since starting a company with his brother and two buddies, he’s had more important things on his mind. Like transitioning veterans back into society. But when his curvy new tenant falls into his arms—literally—his libido snaps to attention.
Jovy Larson has four weeks to prove she’s worthy of taking over the family business. Her challenge? Sell gluten-free, vegan food—in the middle of cattle country, Texas. It’s a tough task, but not half as tough as fighting her attraction to her sexy, surly landlord.
Before she knows it, Jovy’s tangling sheets with the hot cowboy, stalked by a jealous cow, and strategizing ways to help Stone’s ranch. But by the time her lease runs out and the test is over, she’s faced with a new challenge…competing against Stone’s sense of duty to win his heart.
Could the day get any worse?
Shutting down his computer, Stone Mitchum silently cursed his stupidity. After a decade as an Army Ranger, he knew better than to tempt fate with such a blatant thought. Too many times he’d witnessed others throw caution to the wind and invariably pay for the mistake in the end. Not him. Caution was his middle name. Until lately. Jackass seemed more fitting. Like now, thanks to that wayward thought, he just invited more shit to rain down on his sorry ass today.
Way to go, Stone Jackass Mitchum.
With a grunt, he closed his laptop and stood, unsure if the creaking sound came from his knees or the old oak desk barely noticeable under a mound of papers and receipts. He glanced around the small office, just big enough to house the desk, chair, filing cabinet, and worn sofa…covered in more paperwork and receipts. At least the holes in the green plaid cushions were no longer visible.
Organizing the ranch office was on Stone’s to-do list, but not a top priority at the moment. Today was rent day, and for a change, he was the collector, not the payee. And after the last two emails he’d just read, he had some serious scrambling to do.
The first was from the bank reminding him the loan payment on the ranch was overdue. Again. The second was from a new tenant, insisting she’d already paid her first payment. His bank account said otherwise. Was this what he had to look forward to with her for the next few weeks? If he hadn’t been so damn desperate for money to keep the ranch and business afloat, he never would’ve signed a tenant who wanted to rent one of his storefronts in town for only one month. Good thing he insisted she start her lease early. Too bad the woman was tough to pin down for payment. He was right tired of dealing with the northerner through emails. It was time to have a face-to-face with this Jovy person.
He came around his desk and grimaced. What kind of a name was Jovy, anyway? The pain was probably one of those eternally happy people who constantly smiled, chewed gum, and drew hearts in her signature.
A few more curses rumbled in his throat as the door to the office swung open and his older brother Brick strode in, smudges of grease clinging to his jeans and chiseled face, while a troubled gaze mirrored Stone’s discontent. Great. Looked like he wasn’t the only one having a bad day.
The two of them, along with their buddies Vince and Cord, had been working nonstop for weeks on end to get their construction business off the ground. Requests for estimates from word of mouth started to trickle in. If they kept up the pace—provided nothing broke down—they’d be operating in the black by the end of next week. That meant they could hire more veterans.
The very goal of Foxtrot Construction—to give returning veterans a purpose, a reason to exist, and a place to stay on their ranch, if needed.
“Damn backhoe’s broken again.” The scowling giant tossed his large frame on the sofa, sending papers and receipts cascading onto the worn wooden floor.
One more thing to add to Stone’s never ending to-do list. Stripping and staining the oak planks. The chore fell right below organizing the office. Damn list was getting bigger every day.
“Yo! Did you hear me, little brother?” A brow quirked over a set of dark eyes and tired expression Stone knew too well. It mirrored his, except Stone had gray eyes and a slimmer face. “The backhoe’s broken, again.”
He sighed. So much for avoiding broken equipment. But considering nothing they owned was brand-new, breakdowns were expected. Good thing Cord was an ace mechanic.
“I heard you.” Twelve months younger and shorter by one inch, although the way his brother teased you’d swear it was a whole damn foot, Stone leaned his six-foot-two-inch frame against the front of the desk. It creaked in protest again. He sympathized.
The ranch he purchased from his dad eight months ago with his brother and their two former Army Ranger buddies seemed like a great deal at the time. The large homestead, built by his grandfather, had been the perfect size and location to give returning veterans a safe place to stay while readjusting to civilian life. Or so they thought. Thousands of dollars and man-hours later, he wasn’t so sure. The repairs seemed endless, and he had the added burden of knowing his brother wanted to leave but wouldn’t until the ranch was fixed and the business was making a profit. Stone felt old and worn out like his desk. And their bank account.
He blew out a breath. “What’s wrong with it now?”
He stiffened. “Gone? Or broken?”
“Does it matter?”
“Hell yeah, it matters. Is someone stealing stuff or is the damn thing broken?”
Frowning, Brick slowly rose to his feet, never breaking eye contact. “Relax. No one is stealing anything. It’s broken. Like your patience. Jeez, bro, you need to get laid.”
He resisted flipping the jerk the bird. Barely. “Forget about my fucking sex life and worry about the damn backhoe.”
Amusement sparkled in his brother’s eyes. “But your sex life is more interesting. Or lack thereof.”
Stone snorted. “Then you need a new hobby.”
“No.” Brick stepped forward and gripped Stone’s shoulders. “You need a new sex life. You haven’t been out on a date in nearly nine months.”
A fierce, sudden urge to smash something ripped through Stone, but he remained rigid and still. Nine months ago, their friend Leo attempted suicide and almost died. A fact that never failed to crush Stone’s chest with an invisible force. Would the anger and self-loathing ever go away? Probably not. Still, Brick didn’t deserve his wrath.
As if sensing the inner battle, his astute brother tightened his hold. “We all blame ourselves. But you need to snap out of it.”
If it weren’t for the concern darkening the guy’s already-weary gaze, Stone could’ve been persuaded to release a little of that anger. But his brother’s anxiety neutralized the aggression surging through Stone’s veins.
Damn. He hadn’t meant to worry anyone. Hell, he hadn’t even realized others had been keeping track of his lack of liaisons.
Brick released him and grinned. “Then prove it. Come with us to the Beer and Steer later. You haven’t gone out with me and the guys in months.”
“Because I’ve been too busy trying to run things,” he countered. “And there’s always something that needs fixing on the ranch.”
Besides, he didn’t deserve to have fun.
“Try again, shorty.” His brother smirked. “We’ve done a damn good job of turning the stables into quarters, fixing the barn for the horses, and tackling some repairs on this old ranch house.”
“And with the exception of the dead starter, Cord has brought all the other equipment back to life,” his brother added.
Also true. Their buddy was very useful with any kind of tool you shoved in his hands.
Brick folded his arms over his broad chest and stared him down. “I’m aware you take care of the business side of things, for which I’m eternally grateful, but you know what they say: all business and no play makes Stone a very dull rock.”
A grin twitched his lips. He punched his brother’s shoulder as he straightened from the desk. “You’re a goof, and I need to go collect the rent, unless you happen to be heading into town for that starter?”
“No. Sorry, bro.” Brick shook his head. “I already called old Skeeter. He doesn’t have one in stock. I came in here to use the laptop to order one online. You’re going to have to go collect the rent yourself.” A mischievous gleam entered his brother’s eyes. “You know, I heard the new tenant is pretty. Curvy, too. She could be just what you need to get back into the game. Help you clean the lead out of your pipes.”
Ah hell, not that again. “Give it a rest, Brick.” He scoffed. “I don’t care what she looks like. I’m not interested.”
“Ha!” His brother’s bark of laughter bounced off the walls. “You say that now, but one day, some pretty girl is going to come along and your deprived body is going to overrule your stubborn-ass mind.”
Not bothering to reply, Stone headed for the door. He wasn’t stubborn. His brother was stubborn. Trying to change that mule-head’s mind once it was made was like talking to a brick wall. Smiling at his poor joke, he grabbed his Stetson off the hook by the door and shoved it on his head.
“Don’t forget to meet us at the Beer and Steer later.”
Yep, damn brick wall.
He lifted his hand in a mock salute before pivoting around on his old Justins and marching out the door to go saddle his horse. The ranch was only three miles from town, and Stone was always looking for ways to cut costs. Plenty of folks saved gas money by riding their horses instead of driving vehicles. Hell, old Skeeter rode his tractor around town.
Using a horse was smart. Besides, they enjoyed the exercise. Especially his colt. Galahad was two, and taller and bigger than most stock horses. The white-and-brown paint was always the talk of the town whenever Stone rode in on him.
With the fence to his right, he traveled past several properties and stopped to feed some of the livestock grazing near the fence by the road. Their eagerness and wholehearted acceptance made this Stone’s favorite part of heading to town. He always shoved cut-up carrots into his pockets before leaving the ranch.
Joyful, Texas, had a population of only fifteen hundred and three, yet the unexpected tended to happen. He prided himself on being prepared for anything—
“Hi, Stone,” a female voice called from behind.
He turned toward the sound of hoofbeats to see the neighbor’s daughter riding toward him on the other side of the fence, her ample breasts doing their best to give the petite woman a black eye. Stifling a sigh, he smiled and nodded at the recent college grad. “Hi, Abby.”
She was a nice girl, and cute, and once upon a time he would’ve been pleased to see interest lighting her pretty blue eyes. But, ever since Leo’s…attempt, Stone had sworn off women. Hell, there was no need. None ever got a rise out of him. His body remained dead below the belt, even in Abby’s presence. Could be because his tastes tended to go for a more mature woman who was well past legal drinking age and not prone to giggling, but he was fairly certain it was because of that night.
“It’s awfully hot. I was just heading to the swimming hole for an afternoon dip. Care to join me?” Her pink-coated lips curved into a coy smile while she batted her lashes.
A blatant invitation. One his buddies at the ranch would think he’d lost his mind to turn down.
“Thanks for the invite.” He shook his head. “But I have business I need to tend to in town.”
So, he’d lost his mind, and his sex drive. Whatever. He had work to do.
Without waiting for a reply, he picked up the pace and didn’t slow until the last property before town came into view. There was only one girl in his life right now. She was big and sweet, with the warmest chocolate-brown eyes that melted his heart. Lula Belle. The cute black-and-white cow he always stopped to feed. Catching his scent, the old girl stopped grazing and turned toward him.
He halted his horse. “Hey, sweetheart. I have something for you.”
She let out a moo and rushed to the fence, her bell clanging out a funny tune that never ceased to bring a smile to his face.
After dismounting, he fished out the remaining carrot pieces, then reached over the fence. “Here you go, girl.” He opened his palm, marveling at how an animal so big could be so gentle, never once nicking his hand.
Stone stroked her head and talked to her as she ate, knowing not to get on his horse until she was done. The old girl always ran after him, and he didn’t want her to choke. So he waited for her to finish before he climbed back onto Galahad. “I have to go, sweetheart. You stay here,” he told her before he resumed his gallop to town, the echo of the cowbell growing fainter as he passed Skeeter’s and neared the second building.
The Beer and Steer.
He rode by a handful of pickups, cars, horses, and a tractor in the parking lot, while he eyed the front door. His stomach tightened. No. That was a step he wasn’t ready to take. A damn good excuse was needed to get out of joining his brother and the guys later.
One he was still contemplating as he removed his hat and swiped the sweat from his brow after he secured Galahad on a horse post tucked safely out of the way at the end of the street. Last month, rent day had been twenty degrees cooler. He knew better than to complain, though. Next month started “oven” season. Although compared to some of his deployments to the hellhole across the pond—in full gear—a Texas summer would be cake.
With his Stetson back in place, he spent the next half hour walking down one side of the street, collecting rent from a few tenants in the L-shaped row of quaint little shops and businesses he and some of Foxtrot’s crew had painted a light blue last month. Amazing what a coat of paint could do. The buildings looked fresh and cheerful. Hell, even the foot traffic appeared to have increased. He nodded to several passersby and stopped to shoot the shit with a few others.
A sliver of satisfaction shot through him at the knowledge that not only had the veterans he employed benefited from three days’ work, his tenants had also reaped a reward. A good reminder of why he did what he did.
Still trying to devise a reason to keep his ass out of the Beer and Steer, Stone headed down the wooden sidewalk on the other side of the street to his final stop.
Jovy. The northerner who was trying to get out of her first payment. What was her problem? He’d been more than lenient, signing her on for only one month. Jesus, he’d even agreed to let her make weekly payments. Weekly. Who does that?
Apparently, he did. Because he was an idiot. And desperate.
A desperate idiot.
But he wasn’t a hard-ass. Hell, he knew how damn tough it was to pay bills, and if he hadn’t needed every cent from the shops he and his brother had inherited when their grandparents passed, Stone wouldn’t be out in the damn midday Texas heat pestering good folks for their rent. But he needed it. The vets needed it. And dammit, this new tenant was just as bound as the rest.
Setting his shoulders, he rounded the corner, ready to do battle with the pain in the ass from Philly, then stopped dead, his heart rocking the shit out of his chest.
A stunning woman with a dark ponytail swishing past her shoulders stood on a ladder in a white tank top and shorts, struggling to affix a metal sign to two hooks in the wood ceiling above the shop door.
Long, bare, supple legs—with the right amount of delectable curves—disappeared under a pair of denim cutoffs barely covering the sweetest ass he’d ever seen. His pulse kicked up speed then broke into a full-blown gallop. Not only were those curves sweet, they were so awe-inspiring they breathed life into his neglected body part. The one he didn’t want inspired. His damn dick twitched for the first time in nearly a year.
Son of a bitch. That was not good.
Still, try as he might, Stone couldn’t tear his gaze away. He was seeing some cheeks here. Mouthwatering, upside-down heart-shaped cheeks he wanted to grab with both hands while he buried his…
A sharp burst of longing spiked almost painfully through his groin. Did he look away? Hell no. His resurrected libido was calling the shots. He swallowed, never taking his gaze off the shorts that were so short, he could see a light purple thong, and the bottom of…ah hell…
A green tattoo?
The urge to step close and run his hands up those gorgeous legs and cup the equally gorgeous ass caused him to hear bells. By the time the flash of black and white registered in his muddled brain, Stone realized the ringing he was hearing was real. Very real. And it came from the bell around the approaching cow’s neck.
Shit. How’d she get lose?
At the moment, that didn’t matter, because the cow was charging straight toward him, apparently uncaring there was a ladder with a sexy, unsuspecting, barely-dressed woman in the way.
When Jovy Larson’s grandfather had sent her to the middle of cattle country USA to open a gluten-free, vegan café in a contest to test her business skills against her cousin, she knew she would have to deal with some tough, and often unexpected, situations. Becoming a hit-and-moo victim of a rampaging cow had never made the list. Bovines weren’t exactly a common fixture in the City of Brotherly Love, despite the fact that Pennsylvania was one of the top five U.S. dairy farm states with over eight thousand farms. She’d never seen one up close. The clanging of the bell grew louder.
That was about to change. And fast. Mad-cow-charging fast.
With a startled gasp, she tried to scramble down the ladder, but it teetered under her feet and her hands ended up windmilling instead. Jovy’s last thought as she flew backward toward the large plate-glass storefront window was if she didn’t die, her cranky landlord was going to kill her.
Fully expecting to smash through the glass, she was shocked to hear a deep, sexy, panty-melting baritone claim, “I’ve got you,” a second before a tall cowboy appeared out of thin air to catch her with his rock-hard body. Two strong, muscular arms clamped around her before the momentum knocked them both to the ground.
Her mind was processing the fact that she was uncut and still alive, sprawled over the sexiest man she’d ever seen, when the stranger rolled them over to shield her from the falling ladder. The impact vibrated through his stiff frame.
Holy cow. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Warm breath rushed over her neck and shoulders as he drew back to stare down at her. During the tussle, his hat fell off to reveal short black hair that didn’t quite reach his collar. “What about you? Are you all right?” Gray eyes, the color of a child’s prized marble, blinked at her in a worried frown.
Increasingly aware that she was now underneath the tall, sexy stranger, whose big, warm, firm hand was cupping her ass—and she liked it—Jovy cleared her throat. “Define ‘all right.’”
“Are you hurt?” He removed his palm from inside her shorts, the warm, tingling feeling dissipated along with his touch, until he shoved the ladder aside, sat up, and began to run both hands efficiently over the rest of her body.
Her sorely neglected body. A body doing an all hail Mr. Gray Eyes tremor. Lord have mercy, her good parts hadn’t been in contact with a male like this in over a year. Not since…
“Hey, miss? Answer me. Are you hurt?”
Hurt? She stifled a hysterical giggle. “No.”
Aroused? Oh, yeah. Big-time. And completely embarrassed by her reaction to the total stranger. She could explain away the tremors racking her body as shock, but not the beaded nipples plainly visible through her bra and tank top.
If he noticed them, he didn’t let on as his hands skimmed over her chest, neck, and shoulders.
She gritted her teeth, enjoying the scrape of his callus-roughened hands on her skin, doing her damnedest not to embarrass herself further by moaning.
“You feel okay to me.”
Sitting up, she snickered. “Thanks, but…shouldn’t you buy me dinner first?” The stupid words were out of her mouth before she had the chance to swallow them down.
He stilled and met her gaze for a beat, then his head tipped back and a bark of laughter echoed down the covered walkway. The deep, sexy sound did nothing to lessen her arousal, but the sight of the cow, pushing her way past the fallen ladder to moo in his startled face, sparked her amusement.
Jovy giggled. “Looks like you have yourself an admirer there, cowboy.”
“Nah.” He shrugged, lifting a hand to stroke the cow’s neck. “Lula Belle is just a little overzealous.”
And bold, or maybe not. Jovy didn’t possess a wealth of bovine knowledge. But she did know it was plumb dangerous for livestock to be roaming free in town. “You should probably keep your cow at home.”
A smile tugged his mouth. “She’s not my cow.”
At this, Lula Belle bent down to lick his face.
Jovy quirked a brow. “Does the cow know that?”
Amusement danced in the stranger’s eyes, and the smile that had threatened claimed a set of kissable lips she had the sudden urge to taste. Her heart rolled in her chest. Dammit. He needed to stop doing that or she was never going to catch her breath. An instant later, his gaze dropped to her mouth, and what little air was left in Jovy’s lungs took a hike, leaving her with a racing pulse and fluttering stomach. No man had ever affected her this way, especially a stranger. But at the moment, she didn’t care. An odd, new, tangible current coursed between them.
If the heat entering his gaze was any indication, the stranger felt it, too. Good. She’d hate to be the only one stuck in this crazy-ass haze. The good-looking Texan was hard. Deliciously hard. And dead sexy. Heaven help her, it took all of Jovy’s willpower to fight the impulse to press him onto his back and check his body for injuries…with slow and very thorough precision. That would be foolish. So damn foolish. Need trembled through her like a rampaging cow, but she continued to resist. The urges were so far out of her character she remained stunned.
And completely at his mercy. All the cowboy had to do was make a move, one little move, and she would lean forward and accidentally catch his lips with her mouth.
“Is everyone all right?” An older man approached, rope dangling from his hand…on a tractor?
She wasn’t in Pennsylvania anymore.
He was a welcome interruption. Her heated, sensitized, need-filled body wholeheartedly disagreed.
The cowboy blinked the desire from his eyes before he turned his attention to the newcomer. “Yeah.” He gently pushed the cow back so he could stand. “We’re okay, Skeeter.”
Skeeter? There was a name she didn’t hear every day, but it fit the senior citizen’s friendly, weathered face. Her sexy rescuer turned and held a hand out to help her up, but before she could grab on, Lula Belle rushed forward to shove between them.
“Possessive much?” She scooted backward on her butt.
Skeeter chuckled and passed the rope to the cowboy, who quickly fashioned a loop and harnessed the cow. “Don’t mind Lula Belle. The old gal is sweet on Stone.”
She smirked. “Never would’ve guessed.”
Nor would she have guessed the cowboy’s name was Stone. Although whether it was his first, last, or nickname, it was 100 percent fitting, considering the rock-hard body that had just covered hers on the sidewalk.
Still chuckling, the older man held out his hand, and this time, the cow didn’t interfere as he helped Jovy to her feet.
“Thank you, Skeeter. I’m Jovy.”
“Welcome to Texas, Jovy.” He smiled and released her hand.
She glanced up and down the street. “Are there any other rampaging cows or livestock I need to worry about?”
“Not unless you count cowboys as livestock.” He winked, then grabbed the rope from Stone. “Come on, Lula Belle. Let’s get you home. I bet Mr. Rawlins isn’t even aware you’re gone.” With a nod and a few hard tugs on the harness, Skeeter led the protesting cow away.
She was definitely not in Pennsylvania anymore.
Jovy turned, intending to thank the stranger for saving her, but he was busy affixing her dangling sign to the hooks above the door. Without the use of the ladder.
Jeez. Just how tall was the guy?
“Small” was not a word used to describe Jovy’s five-foot-nine-inch frame. Tall. Sturdy. Curvy. Heck, despite her dark hair, she’d even been nicknamed Marilyn by several guys back in her college days. But tiny, delicate, and small were all antonyms.
Until now. Compared to this man. He had almost a good half a foot on her, with broad shoulders and muscles bulging under the rolled-up sleeves of his denim shirt. The lean Texan made her feel delicate…and feminine. Not an easy feat.
He finished hanging the sign, stepped back, and frowned. “V-Spot Café?”
For a small, stupid moment her mind heard G-spot and her body responded with another damn tremor. Bet he knew where a woman’s…
Stiffening, she gave her head a small shake to get her mind back on track before thrusting out her hand. “Thank you for catching me.”
Warm and strong, his fingers curled around hers and tiny tingles of heat skittered up her arm. She glanced from their hands to his bewildered gaze.
That was new.
He cleared his throat and released her. “It was nothing.”
Unsure if he was referring to his heroic act or the current flowing between, she pushed both thoughts aside. It didn’t matter. She wasn’t staying in Texas any longer than necessary. This crazy, weird attraction was best ignored.
“Well, I appreciate what you did. Thanks for your help.” She glanced at the shop and shuddered. “Man, my jackass of a landlord would’ve had a cow if that window had smashed. I’m sure he never would’ve believed the cause. Heck, I’m beginning to wonder if he’s even real. He won’t give me a phone number. I have to do all my dealing with him through emails. He even made me come down here a few days early or he threatened to give the place to someone else. Talk about difficult. And strange.” She turned back to face him, noting that the amusement had disappeared from his eyes. “Oh, wow. I take it by your sour expression you’ve had dealings with S.B. Mitchum, too. I bet the S stands for ‘stubborn.’ Or maybe it stands for ‘strange.’”
Again, she was alone in her merriment. The cowboy didn’t crack a smile. Nothing. Zilch. In fact, his expression turned as hard as stone. Ah, crap. This was a small town. He probably knew the guy. She sighed. Great. Now she had to backpedal.
“Well, we’ve all been called stubborn and strange. Even me.” She shrugged. “Speaking of called…we haven’t been officially introduced. I’m Jovy Larson. And you are…?”
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It’s all my mother’s fault. She read to me when I was little and sparked my imagination. Now, my mind is the limit, and believe me, there’s no limit to my mind. Hello, I’m Donna Michaels, NYT & USA Today Bestselling Award winning author of Romaginative fiction. I write romance through the H’s—Hot, Humorous, Heartwarming reads with strong alpha cowboys and military men who are equally matched by their heroines. With a husband in the military fulltime, and a household of nine, and several rescued cats, I never run out of material. From short to epic, my books entertain readers across a variety of sub-genres, and one has even been hand drawn into a Japanese Translation.
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