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Hot buttered rum standal.., p.30
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       Hot Buttered Rum: Standalone Romance (Silk Stocking Inn Book 4), p.30

           Tess Oliver

  I looked at him. His sleeves were rolled up, exposing strong forearms. I hadn’t seen a pair of arms, muscular and powerful from hard work, in a long time. Something about his caused a flutter in my belly.

  “At night? It’s been awhile since I’ve ridden.”

  “Like riding a bicycle.” He shrugged and turned the wheelbarrow around. “The way you went at that cupcake, just took you as a woman with a bit of spunk.” He rolled the barrow back toward the barn. I stomped after him.

  “I’ve got spunk. Damn it. You know what? Let’s ride. Saddle me your fiercest stallion, and I’ll show you spunk.”

  He stopped without warning. I ran into his back and bounced back, just as I’d done in the barn. He turned around with a laugh. “Looks like you need a new set of brakes, Spunky. I’ll saddle a horse for you.” His dark brow arched. “You sure you want a stallion?”

  “Well, maybe one of your bomb-proof geldings for this first initiation back in the saddle.”

  “Right. We’ll save Thunderstorm for your second ride.”

  His long legs made his stride impossibly fast to keep up with, but I managed to hurry along next to him to avoid any more collisions. Not that I minded it. If I was going to crash into something, a hunky cowboy built like a brick wall was a good choice.

  “Do you really have a stallion named Thunderstorm?” I asked as we reached the barn.

  “Don’t even have a stallion. I’d just as soon have a fire breathing dragon inside one of those stalls.”

  The down-home way he spoke put a smile on my face. “My grandpa used to say ‘if you’re not breeding mares then keeping a stallion is just plain foolhardy’.”

  “Smart man, your grandpa.”

  We reached a stall door, and he slid it open. The inside had been transformed into a tack room. The smell of worn leather and saddle blankets coasted out. An array of western saddles were draped over wall racks. Long leather reins and silver bridles dangled along hooks on the adjacent wall.

  Jackson stopped in front of the wall of saddles. “Let’s see which of these will work for you.”

  There was an odd, almost antique looking saddle on a saw horse in the corner.

  I walked over and fingered the well-oiled leather. “Is this a sidesaddle?”

  “Yep. That’s the one Coco uses. She claims it’s the way she learned to ride.”

  “Really? I know sometimes women ride sidesaddle just for novelty and to show how skilled they are, but I didn’t think anyone from this century would ever have learned it from the start.”

  “Sometimes, I think Coco has seen as much of history as that old house of hers.” He reached up and yanked down a simple, lightweight looking saddle. “You’re going to ride Archie. This saddle fits him best. It’ll work for you too.”

  He held the saddle against his hip, looking every bit as cowboy as possible. “You ready to ride, Spunky?”

  I smiled. “Why do I get the feeling that I just earned myself a nickname?”

  He stepped closer, close enough that I could nearly count every one of his long black eyelashes. “I kind of like it, myself.” He stared pointedly down at my lips. For a brief second, I was sure he’d kiss me. And I would have been just fine with that.

  A long, warmly tense moment followed and my lips nearly tingled with the notion of his kiss, a tingle that drifted down through my body, stopping between my thighs. He was a ten, a massive, rugged, oozing manliness ten and briefly I wondered what the heck I’d ever seen in Nate.

  Jackson smiled and I was fairly certain my heart melted just a bit. “Well, damn. I think this is going to be a good weekend.”

  Chapter 8

  Archie, a sorrel gelding with a shaggy mane and a sweet, silly temperament, snorted curiously at nature’s nighttime fragrances. “He seems to have a slight hitch in the back right leg,” I noted as we walked the horses along a smooth dirt trail leading away from the barn and the inn. In front of us, halfway circled by a copse of thick trees, sat a pond, looking serene and idyllic as if it had just been painted into the landscape. But the green, musky smell of fresh water assured me it wasn’t just a painting.

  “Yep, his right hock locks up on him sometimes. You’re good. Not many people would notice it.”

  “I was lucky enough to ride a lot of different horses on Grandpa’s ranch, some good, some ornery, some just plain crazy. Of course, they probably thought the same of me.” I reached forward and patted Archie’s neck. “So he doesn’t mind being ridden?”

  “I think it actually loosens him up when he gets out for a ride. The hitch is only noticeable when he walks. His trot and lope are fine.”

  Jackson stopped his horse, and Archie followed without me having to halt him. We stared out at the large pond. Its glassy surface mirrored the silhouette of the surrounding trees. I hadn’t traveled far from home when I ended up at the Silk Stocking Inn, yet it seemed that I was far away from the city and deep in the country, a place that had always felt like home.

  Jackson looked over at me. His eyes were an unearthly green under the moonlight. “Never would have taken you as the ranching type. But I can see, with the way you sit that saddle, that your riding skills are almost as good as your cupcake eatin’ skills.”

  I couldn’t hold back a grin. “Can’t even imagine what you must have thought of me when you saw me sit down and gobble that cupcake . . . like a caveman or cavewoman.”

  He gazed at me now as if he could see straight into my thoughts. “When you walked in and I saw your face, I thought that broken angel is in need of some much deserved attention.” He reached across and pushed back a strand of hair. I held my breath as his fingers grazed my cheek and ear. As light and gentle as the gesture had been, he might just as well have taken me into his arms and kissed me.

  “It shows,” he said.

  “What shows?” I asked with my first real breath since he’d touched me.

  “Whatever the hell that guy did to you. It shows.”

  I pulled my face away and stared down at the horse beneath me. “Thought I was covering it better than that. I never let myself cry about it. In fact, I’m not completely sure tears would have come if I had allowed them. I was more disappointed in myself. Figured it was all my fault for not keeping his interest.”

  “The guy was an idiot.” He threw his long leg over the saddle and dropped down to the ground. I followed. We walked the horses to the thick grass growing along the perimeter of the pond. They instantly dropped their heads to graze.

  Having my long term boyfriend and fiancé run off with another woman hadn’t exactly been my proudest moment. I was anxious to change the subject. Thankfully, Jackson didn’t know any details, even though he was astute enough to see through the poker face I’d been wearing since Nate’s phone call.

  “Did you grow up on a ranch?” I asked.

  “Sort of. My parents split when I was young. They sold off the ranch. I bounced around the country with my mom until she couldn’t handle my wild ways anymore.” He looked pointedly at me. “Her words, not mine. She shipped me back to my dad, who had no interest in raising me. So I found a way to raise myself. I wandered from ranch to ranch as a hired hand, never really settling in anywhere.”

  “No other family or friends?”

  “I’ve got friends from one side of the country to the other but no one rock solid. No one I keep in steady contact with. And no one to come home to.” His last words tugged at my heart.

  “I’ve been working late every night, hanging out in the studio long after everyone else has gone home, just because I hate walking into my empty apartment. Everyone should have someone to come home to. Don’t you think?”

  He stared out at the water. “I think you’re right about that, Spunky.”

  Chapter 9

  We rode back, mostly in silence. I’d lea
rned a few things in the half hour ride with Jackson, revelations that hadn’t occurred to me until tonight. I’d convinced myself that I’d handled the break-up stoically, that I was certain everyone was marveling at just how unflappable I was. It had been important to keep a stiff upper lip at work. I was the producer, the person everyone came to with problems, and I didn’t want to appear weak by falling apart at the seams after Nate left me. I hoped that I’d been imagining the empathetic smiles and glances from the cast and crew. But all along, it seemed, I’d been wearing my broken heart right on my proverbial sleeve. Jackson had seen it the moment I walked into the bakery, and he’d known nothing about me or the break-up.

  I’d also realized that I badly needed to move on. It was time to shove the Chunky Monkey and Mocha Swirl back into the freezer and get serious about dating again. Going home to an empty apartment had been the hardest part of all. I needed to know someone was waiting for me to come home. I needed that again.

  My biggest fret, now, was how the heck I was ever going to trust anyone with my heart again.

  We reached the barn. I watched as my extremely appealing trail guide jumped down from his horse. Jackson was, of course, the last thing I needed. A man like him would have no shortage of women. But I wondered if a flirtatious, sexy weekend away from home with a man who I would probably never see again, would be just what I needed to restore some confidence. I climbed off Archie and followed Jackson and his horse into the stables.

  We put the horses in cross ties. “You’re the only guest this weekend. If you like, we can take a longer ride tomorrow.”

  I tapped my chin as if I was actually trying to decide. “Let’s see, a scenic horseback ride with a very hot cowboy—uh, yep. That works.”

  I could see a crease in his cheek as he stifled a grin. “Very hot cowboy, I like that.”

  I unfastened the cinch on my horse. “That can’t be the first time a woman has referred to you as a very hot cowboy. I mean, you are western calendar material, my friend.”

  He shrugged as he hauled the saddle and blanket off his horse. “Calendar material.” He laughed, and shook his head as he disappeared into the tack room.

  I pulled off my saddle and followed him.

  He lifted the saddles back onto their racks. Before I could walk back out, he took hold of my hand. He turned me to face him and pushed my chin up with the side of his finger. His focus went straight to my lips again. I crossed my toes in my boots that this was leading to the much anticipated kiss.

  “Two rules for this weekend.”

  “Yes?” The waver in my voice caught me off guard just as the moment had.

  “These lips—” He brushed his thumb across my bottom lip. “Are mine for the next forty-eight hours.” He dropped his brazen gaze to my body. “This delectable set of curves are mine too. And, most importantly, you leave here forgetting everything about that dimwit asshole except that he is a dimwit asshole.” He lowered his mouth to mine and pressed it over my lips. It was a gentle, teasing kiss that did not disappoint and left me nearly frantic with wanting more. Just one, easy kiss and my mind fuzzed up with erotic urges and images.

  He lifted his face. I opened my eyes and gazed up bleary eyed at him. “Three,” I said on a sigh. “That was three rules.”

  “Was it? Lost count.” He lowered his mouth to mine again. He smelled of man’s soap, hay and the sweet grit of the work day. It was the best damn fragrance in the world.

  “See what you’ve already done to me, woman? And I’ve only kissed you. You just might have my head spinnin’ before this weekend is over.”

  Chapter 10

  Jackson had things to finish up in the barn and I, feeling beyond giddy from the flirting, something we’d quickly gotten down to an art, headed back to the inn for a much needed shower and rest.

  Coco was just coming down the stairs as I reached them. “I just put some fresh towels and a little something for sleep time in your room.” She was always wearing a smile that seemed to indicate that she knew even my innermost thoughts. “Sometimes it’s fun to wear something that feels just a bit naughty, don’t you agree? It’s a luxury we girls should never ignore. I’ve made some chocolate chip cookies. I’ll bring you up one. I’ll leave it outside your door in case you’re in the shower.”

  “Thanks so much, Coco. This place is wonderful. Five star all the way. Actually, your baking might even be in a star rating system of its own.”

  “Well, good night then, Becca. See you in the morning.”

  I stepped inside the room. It looked even cozier in the deep shadows of night. I walked to the window to lower the drapes. In the distance, I could see Jackson walking out of the barn. His broad shoulders and cool swaggering stride unfurled heat in my pussy, a profound reaction I hadn’t expected. I dropped the drapes and wondered where the man slept. I supposed it was possible that he had a room downstairs.

  The bathroom had been updated with the glass and tile of a modern bathroom. The shower was spa-like, and I spent far too long in the warm mist, not wanting to leave its comfort. I’d needed this, all of this, cowboy included. In one short evening, Jackson had restored some of the confidence I’d lost.

  I coaxed myself out of the shower and was reminded that Coco had left something for me to wear to bed. I patted myself dry. Even her towels were ethereal. I walked into the bedroom and saw, for the first time, a shimmery pink puddle of fabric sitting on the antique dresser.

  I hurried over, excited to see what she’d left for me. I lifted up the light-as-air garment. Although, calling it a garment might have been a stretch. It was more a whisper of satiny material held together by gossamer and lace. The nightie was in the short baby-doll style one might wear on a wedding night, with two panels that opened down the middle. The satin panels were attached to a bra-like top that was made from a material so sheer, it wouldn’t conceal the tiniest freckle. The straps were spaghetti thin, and the matching panties were a thong consisting of thin lace and a pink satin triangle. I was standing alone in a room and only holding the lingerie, but it made me blush pink to think of wearing it.

  Then Coco’s words came back to me about wearing something naughty now and then just because. It was certainly overtly sexy and feminine. And I needed to feel sexy and feminine. What could it hurt? Not to mention, my work clothes and the jeans and shirt that I’d worn to the barn, weren’t really suitable or comfortable for sleeping.

  I dropped the towel and slipped it on. I allowed myself a few minutes of modeling the itsy bitsy nightie in the mirror. It was definitely the height of provocative. Instantly, it made me feel, just as Coco had suggested, naughty. And I had to admit, I looked pretty good in it too. I briefly imagined myself taking a selfie and sending it to Nate. Just as quickly, I wanted to kick myself for even thinking it. Nate had lost his privilege of seeing me in see-through lingerie. I so needed to get that asshole out of my head for good.

  The scent of brown sugar seeped under the door, and I quickly remembered the promise of a chocolate chip cookie. I looked down at my attire, or lack thereof, and reached for the shirt I’d worn down to the barn. It smelled distinctively of horse, and I was flowery fresh from my shower. The cookie was right outside the door. Chocolate chip was well worth the risk.

  I opened the door and peered out, keeping my scantily clad body hidden from the empty hallway. I leaned my head out farther. Unfortunately, the cookie couldn’t be reached from where I stood. It looked utterly delicious, and I had no intention of leaving it in the hallway.

  I looked both ways, as if crossing a busy street rather than stepping into a completely deserted hallway. I heard some light rustling in the room across the way, which was unexpected because Jackson had mentioned that I was the only guest this weekend. I dashed around the edge of the door and leaned down to pick up the plate. A breeze, an unexplained movement of air, brushed my half-naked bottom, and my bed
room door snapped soundly shut.

  The cookie nearly slid off the plate, but I caught it before tragedy struck. I hadn’t locked the door. I reached for the knob with my free hand. The knob turned, but the door was stuck. I rocked it with one hand, sure it would pop open. It didn’t.

  Always being the multi-task type, I slid a buttery edge of the cookie into my mouth, put the plate on the ground and used both hands to open the door. It didn’t budge. I shook it wildly, sure that there had to be some way to open it. The knob was turning, assuring me it wasn’t locked.

  I heard a door behind me open, and another cool breeze tickled my naked ass and lifted the shimmery panels of the nightie up like wings. I froze in horror, sure that I’d turn around and face some nice elderly couple who had decided to stay the night, or worse, two teenage boys who were just running down to the kitchen to get cookies.

  “Need some help with that door?” His deep, already familiar voice should have calmed my earlier terror, but the feeling only intensified. Had I been delusional about the way I looked in the scant piece of satin? I was suddenly feeling more ridiculous and self-conscious than I had in my entire life.

  I turned around, so worried about the lingerie that I’d completely forgotten about the cookie dangling from my mouth. I bit down and the rest of the cookie dropped to the floor. I stared down at it, and temporarily wondered if I could apply the five second rule at such a vulnerable time. Probably not a good idea. I slowly lifted my gaze.

  Jackson had taken time to pull on his jeans, but he hadn’t bothered to button the fly. My eyes traveled along the black line of hair as it dissolved away to naked skin beneath the opening on his pants. I swallowed hard as I took in the rest of him. His bare chest and shoulders were taut with the muscles of a man who didn’t shy away from hard work . . . and hard play, no doubt. I curled my fingers to keep from reaching out and running my hands over his tanned skin.

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