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Come home to Topaz Falls, Colorado where a down-on-her-luck bull rider falls for the cowboy she can't resist in this heart-warming western romance! As a champion barrel racer, Charity Stone has learned to hold her own in the male-dominated rodeo world. There's no cowboy she can't handle...except for one. Officer Dev Jenkins has made it clear he doesn't look at her like one of the guys. He's caught her attention but Charity doesn't do relationships--especially not with a cowboy. When she suddenly finds herself in charge of her thirteen-year-old nephew, who's had a few brushes with the law, Charity has no choice but to ask for the deputy's help. Dev hasn't stopped fantasizing about Charity since she moved to Topaz Falls, but she's been hell bent on keeping her distance. When she comes to him for help with her nephew, he finally has the chance to make his move. Winning her over won't be easy, though -- especially when her nephew's mistakes start to threaten his town. How can he do his job and still convince Charity he's the cowboy for her? I ncludes the bonus story "Unbroken" by Jay Crownover!
Release date: April 2, 2019
Print pages: 449
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Charity Stone really wasn’t in the mood to get arrested tonight.
For some rodeo champions, showing up at the local watering hole after a big win meant parading through the crowd, slapping high fives—or swats on the butt—while you accepted congrats and free drinks from the fans.
For Charity, however, showing up at the Tumble Inn after shaving two seconds off her best barrel racing time meant tipping her Stetson farther down on her forehead and moving swiftly enough that none of the rowdy spectators from earlier—or her other competitors, for that matter—could ask if she was interested in riding something else later. Thankfully, the last guy who’d asked her that hadn’t pressed charges, but tonight she might not be so lucky.
The Tumble Inn happened to be a classier establishment than a lot of the bars she found herself in when she traveled the circuit. It was more of a sports bar and it wasn’t uncommon to see families there together, eating wings and nachos and Gil’s specialty burgers. Back in the day, the place had been an auto body shop, and it still had that homespun feel—the square brick structure, the concrete floors, the garage doors that had been upgraded with glass windows so they could open to the patio in the summer.
On a normal night, Charity loved to hang out here, but tonight the place was packed. Everyone and their grandmas had turned out for the big Topaz Falls Rodeo Days. And she did mean that literally. Elbowing her way through the crowd, Charity waved at Gracie Sullivan and her grandmother, Evie, who were seated at a bar-top table near the old jukebox.
“Ohmygawd!” The girl bounced off her stool and came running. “You were amazing tonight! Can you come over sometime and sign my saddle? I’m gonna be a barrel racer someday too!”
“That’s what your mom told me.” Naomi Cortez, one of Charity’s good friends, had mentioned how terrified she was of her daughter learning how to race. Charity had reminded her there were much worse things a thirteen-year-old girl could be learning how to do. Trust her, she would know. Thus the reason she’d offered to help. “I told her I’d be happy to give you some pointers sometime.”
“Really?” Gracie’s red ringlets and expressive green eyes made it impossible to believe she had recently become a teenager.
“Really,” Charity confirmed. “In fact, we’re doing a youth clinic after the season winds down, and I’ll make sure to save a spot for you.” During the off-season, she and her posse—which included Gracie’s uncle, Levi Cortez, along with Ty Forrester and Mateo Torres—planned to do a few mentoring clinics for kids who were interested in competing.
“Awesome!” Gracie threw her arms around Charity’s shoulders, trapping her in a spastic hug. At least the girl had some serious upper body strength. That would work to her advantage as a racer.
“Ohmygawd, I can’t wait! I’m already growing out my hair so it’ll look just like yours does when you race, flowing behind you on the breeze.” She fluffed her curls—curls Charity would’ve given anything for at one point in her life. Back when she’d actually given a damn about how she looked. Nowadays she kept her blond hair long so she could braid it down her back and keep it out of her way.
“Your hair is perfect the way it is,” Charity said with the same sternness she used on her horse. “Got that? Looks have nothing to do with barrel racing.” Having good genes had done her no favors in the sport, that was for sure. If she had a shiny penny for every time she’d been mistaken for the rodeo queen or a buckle bunny instead of an actual athlete, she’d be the ruler of her own ranch instead of working at the Cortezes’ place in between competitions. “If you want to be a champion someday, you focus here”—she placed her hand over her heart—“and here.” With her other hand she tapped her head. “That’s all you need. You race smart and you race fierce and nothing will stop—”
“Excuse me.” A waitress balancing a small tray slipped in between Charity and Gracie. “That gentleman over there wanted to send you a drink.” The woman’s eyes shone with delight. “It’s a strawberry daiquiri.”
A strawberry daiquiri? Charity let out a threadbare laugh and looked over to where the woman pointed. Ah, yes. The new guy on the scene. The bull rider who’d neglected to qualify for a score in tonight’s competition. She should’ve anticipated this. New guys never seemed to get the memo that she wasn’t interested in dating a cowboy. She wasn’t interested in dating period.
“He must be into you!” Gracie hung on her shoulder. “Look at him! He’s so hot!”
Hot if you liked a walking rubber stamp. Charity had met a hundred men just like him—the worn but expensive jeans, the black button-down western shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose the thorny tattoo on his forearm. Then there was that suggestive smirk on his face, the one that swore he could make all her dreams come true.
Only she didn’t need a man to help her with that. She did just fine on her own, thank you very much.
Charity turned back to the waitress. “Tell him I don’t drink alcohol with fruit in it.”
“Are you sure?” Disappointment crowded out the woman’s smile. “It’s kind of sweet, really. You see it all the time in the movies, but I’ve never been asked to deliver a pickup drink before.”
That was because it worked only in the movies. “I’m sure.” Charity smiled politely at the woman. “I don’t want the drink.” She had other things to do, like somehow convince Gracie that cowboys weren’t the best part about competing on the circuit.
“Okay.” The waitress drew out the word with a pained grimace and then scurried away.
“I bet he would’ve asked you on a date,” Gracie said through a dreamy sigh. “He probably would’ve made a picnic dinner and taken you up to the mountains.”
Charity could all but see the stars shining in the girl’s eyes. What kind of romantic crap had she been watching?
“Oh! He probably has a truck too. So you guys could drive up to Topaz Peak and put blankets in the back and stare up at the stars.” Gracie visibly swooned.
Yeah. Sure. Stare up at the stars. That had to be right at the top of Don Juan Bull Rider’s agenda. “Listen, sweetie.” Charity put her arm around Gracie’s shoulders. “If you really want to focus on becoming the best racer you can be, you’ll have to put romance on the back burner for a while.” Preferably until she was at least twenty-five and able to make healthy, informed choices. “That kind of goal is going to take all you’ve got—”
“You must be a martini kind of gal.”
The deep, suave voice behind them immediately sent Charity into a whirl. Don Juan Bull Rider stood right behind her, holding out a murky-looking drink.
“I bet a woman like you wants it dirty instead of sweet.” He dragged his gaze south and paused at each of the buttons on her plaid shirt as though he was imagining himself ripping them off.
Was this jerk for real? Charity looked around to see if her friends were playing a prank on her, but Mateo, Ty, and Levi stood near the bar talking to Dev Jenkins, one of Topaz Falls’s finest. They didn’t seem to be watching. Gracie, on the other hand? Her eyes were glued to the cowboy and her cheeks had turned a spellbound shade of red.
Charity’s face had to be red too. Red hot. Molten. Anger churned from the very pit of her stomach up into her throat, but Gracie stood right next to her, so she tempered it with an indifferent shrug of her shoulders. “Thanks, but I don’t drink.” Walk away. He obviously wasn’t going to, which meant she’d better before she lost her temper again.
“Maybe she wants it.” The scumbag nodded toward Gracie, giving Charity’s stomach a hard lurch.
“You mean the thirteen-year-old?”
“She sure don’t look thirteen.” The man’s eyes had fixated on Gracie, weakening the feeble hold Charity had on her temper. Men had stared at her like that when she’d been thirteen too. Her mother’s revolving door of boyfriends who’d looked exactly like this sleazeball. And she might’ve been helpless to do anything about it back then, but she sure as hell wasn’t helpless anymore. “Gracie…” She gently directed the girl in the opposite direction. “Go sit with your grandma.”
This suddenly seemed like the perfect night to get herself arrested.
In his six years on the force, Officer Dev Jenkins had learned there was no such thing as an off-duty cop. He’d been trained to keep watch, to notice things when no one else did, and he did not like what he saw unfolding over by the jukebox.
On a typical night, he enjoyed running into Charity Stone. He liked to see her laugh with her friends. Liked to see her long blond hair loose down around her shoulders. He liked to see her ride the way she had a few hours ago—fully in control, caught up in something she loved. But he did not like seeing her having to fend for herself when some jerk was obviously making her uncomfortable.
“Do you know that guy?” Dev asked Ty, Mateo, and Levi.
“What guy?” Ty set his beer on the bar and turned around.
“The dude with Charity?” Mateo asked.
“Yeah. That one.” Dev couldn’t look away. The man’s sneer at Charity triggered every protective instinct he had and then some.
“He’s the new kid,” Levi said with a laugh. “Obviously. The only one stupid enough around here to hit on Charity.”
“You think he hit on her?” Dev assessed the situation unfolding across the bar. If the arm waving was any indication, Charity had gotten riled about something, and the dumbass in question didn’t seem to be backing down. In fact, he’d moved in even closer and touched her arm.
“Fifty bucks says she knocks him on his ass.” Levi pulled out his wallet and found some cash.
“Hell no.” Mateo shoved the money aside. “I’m not betting against Calamity Jane. I’ve seen her do some serious damage.”
“We should find someone else to bet against her,” Ty suggested. “Someone who doesn’t know her.”
“Seriously?” Dev shot them all a look. “She’s fending off unwanted advances and all you yahoos can do is place bets?”
“Charity wouldn’t want us to get involved.” Levi clapped him on the back. “Trust us. She can handle herself.”
“I don’t doubt she can handle herself.” He’d seen enough to know she was a strong woman. “But why should she have to?” They’d likely witnessed her sticking up for herself countless times out on the road, but she wasn’t out on the road. She was home. In Topaz Falls. Seemed to him someone should have her back. He glanced over at her again. She’d officially invaded the guy’s personal space and had the collar of his shirt twisted up in her fist. Shit. He handed his beer to Mateo. “I’m gonna take care of this before I have to arrest her for disturbing the peace.”
“Oh boy,” Mateo muttered. “This ought to be good.”
“Try not to touch her,” Ty called to his back. “She has some freakishly good reflexes.”
“Fifty bucks says he has to arrest her for assaulting a police officer,” Dev heard Levi say behind him.
Shaking his head, Dev made his way through the crowd until he’d reached Charity, who now had the dumbass pinned against the wall.
“You want to say that to me again?” she asked through clenched teeth.
Dev didn’t give the man a chance to say anything. “Hey Charity…” He moved in next to her. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Not now, Dev.” She didn’t look at him. Her eyes were focused, on fire. She tightened her forearm against the guy’s neck.
“She’s insane,” the man whined, wriggling like a hog-tied calf trying to get free. “The woman is batshit crazy.”
“Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” Charity threatened.
Dev rested his hand on her shoulder. “Let’s take a walk.” Under his fingertips, he thought he felt her muscles go soft. This time she did turn to look at him, full on in the face.
“He was hitting on Gracie Cortez,” she said, her jaw trembling. “He offered her a drink.” Dev wasn’t prepared for the trauma in her expression—her blue eyes had opened too wide, dilated with a look of fear, and her mouth strained against emotion, reaching for anger but faltering. He’d seen the same look on the faces of countless victims when he’d come to their rescue. He had to get her out of here. “He’s an asshole,” Dev confirmed, keeping his eyes trained on hers. “But he’s not worth the trouble.” Slowly, he moved his hand to her wrist and tugged it away from the guy’s neck. “Now let’s take a walk.”
She didn’t fight him as he led her away, through the small crowd that had gathered, and out into the night air. Only when they’d cleared the sidewalk outside the doors did Charity wrench away from him. “What’d you do that for?” Her breath came fast and hard.
“What’d you mean, what did I do that for?” he demanded. “You were about to lose it in there. I don’t want to have to make any arrests on my night off.” That and he couldn’t stand seeing the way that man had been staring at her with greedy eyes. Now that Dev had her outside, away from the scumbag, he’d definitely go in and give the cowboy a good scare.
“I don’t need your help.” Defiance reinforced her glare. “I’m fine.”
“I never said you weren’t.” But he’d seen fine and he’d seen traumatized, and he knew the difference.
“You should be in there talking to that creep.” Charity leaned her back against the brick wall, folding her arms, curling her fingers around the exposed flesh under the sleeves of her shirt. “He’s the one who was soliciting a thirteen-year-old girl.”
“I’ll talk to him.” He had no problem letting the man know that kind of idiot behavior wouldn’t be tolerated in his town. “But I figured you should get some air.” It had already helped. Her eyes were fiery again instead of wild, and the red splotches on her face had faded. Damn. For the life of him, he couldn’t seem to look away.
She had no idea how much power she had over him, with that stubborn lift to her chin and the traces of righteous anger still evident in her features. Every time her eyes met his he felt his heart stutter. They were as blue as the topaz gems his dad found hidden in the mountains at the edge of town. Blue and mesmerizing. As always, Charity looked away too soon. He’d noticed that about her whenever they happened to be hanging out with their mutual friends. She always tried to hide, even when she was standing a foot away from him.
Dev had noticed a lot about her since she’d moved to town over two years ago. She said what she thought and stood her ground and carried herself with an air of impenetrable armor. But he’d also seen her cry at Mateo and Everly’s wedding. And she always signed autographs at the local competitions, not caring that the line of kids waiting to see her typically stretched on and on along the fence. She would stay as long as it took, kneeling down to greet all of them on their level, taking the time to learn their names, to answer their questions, to pose for pictures. He’d noticed that was when she smiled the biggest. When she was sharing her passion with kids.
Now, though, she didn’t smile. Her face had paled and dark circles seemed to spread under her eyes as she stood in the shadows of the bar.
That protective fight surged in him again, but he approached her slowly, stopping himself before he got too close. “You want to talk about anything?” Like why her hands still gripped her arms so tight. Or why that confrontation in there had drained the color from her face. Far as he knew, Charity didn’t talk much about her past. There was likely a reason for that.
Even before she shook her head, he knew she’d refuse. “Nope. I’m perfectly fine.” Her eyes steered clear of his.
Dev accepted the refusal with a nod. “Let me know if you ever change your mind.”
Her face tensed, indicating that she wouldn’t confide in him, even if he interrogated her, even if he gave her truth serum; she’d keep her secrets to herself.
He could’ve walked away, but he waited until her eyes met his once more. “Just so you know, if I wasn’t a cop, I would’ve let you kick his ass.”
Surprise bowed her eyebrows. “You think I could’ve?”
He had to laugh. “Oh yeah.”
A trace of a smile perked up her mouth.
He smiled back and started to walk away.
“Dev?” Uncertainty quieted her voice.
He stopped. “Yeah?”
“Thanks for getting me out of there.” Charity walked over to him and shocked him with a squeeze on his hand.
Dev’s hand was warmer than she’d anticipated. Warm and strong. His fingers brushed over Charity’s knuckles, setting off a trill that went skimming all the way down her spine. “I should go.” She quickly dropped his hand and backed up a step. “Gotta be up early tomorrow. Ace likes training in the mornings best. He’s always raring to go. Right after sunup.” As if Dev cared about her horse’s training preferences.
What was it about this man that always made her babble? Charity wouldn’t classify herself as bubbly and talkative. She didn’t know what to do with Dev, that was the problem. He didn’t treat her like one of the guys. Didn’t look at her like Levi, Ty, and Mateo did. To be fair, she didn’t look at him like one of the guys either. She could pick out her colleagues’ flaws from ten feet away, but that was much harder to do with Dev. His eyes always seemed to draw her in. They were a deep shade of brown, calming and vigilant. They held a quiet wisdom and always seemed to be keeping watch.
She did her best to avoid those eyes. They did things. Made her feel things.
And his eyes weren’t the only feature she did her best not to notice. She might not be interested in dating, but she could still appreciate a man’s best features, and Dev had plenty of them. A powerful jaw. Light brown hair that never seemed to muss whether he’d been wearing his cowboy hat or not. Then there was his body…strong and broad. Taller than most of the cowboys she hung around with. And the way he filled out a pair of jeans or those uniform pants he wore…well, let’s just say she always had to look at least twice.
“You okay?” Dev asked, tilting his head as though seeking out her gaze. He had this quiet confidence that unnerved her and intrigued her at the same time.
“I’m great.” Totally and one hundred percent together. Not flustered at all. “Just tired. It’s been a helluva day.”
“I can give you a ride home.” He gestured to his shined-up sheriff’s department SUV across the parking lot.
“Oh. No thanks.” Heat flashed across her face. She never should’ve touched his hand. Never should’ve reached out. Something had changed in the air between them.
“I walked.” She busted out a smile. “We’re only a few blocks from home. Actually, I like walking. It’s good exercise. Energizing. Really gets the blood pumping. I read that walking modifies your nervous system so much that it can decrease anger and hostility.” Jeezum. Shut the hell up, Charity. Everyone already knew she had anger issues. Didn’t have to remind Dev after what had happened in the bar. Instead of making fun of her like her friends, though, he’d somehow defused her, which had been really…sweet.
Oh crap, she’d looked him in the eyes—those soothing reassuring eyes—and now she was trapped. She couldn’t make herself look away.
“I like walking too,” Dev said, obviously doing his best to take the edge off the awkwardness she’d managed to wedge between them with all of the random facts and weird staring.
Giving herself a slight head shake, Charity set out into the parking lot before she could continue to prattle on about the benefits of walking. “Thanks again, Dev,” she muttered on her way past him. “You probably saved me a trip to the slammer. I owe you big.”
“You don’t owe me anything, Charity.”
She paused to peek back over her shoulder.
Dev stood there and watched her walk away, but she couldn’t read the look on his face. Was that a small smile? Maybe intrigue? Amusement? Didn’t matter. She had to get out of here. Her thoughts and emotions never jumbled together this way. It was Don Juan Bull Rider’s fault. He’d had to go and make eyes at Gracie, which in turn had knocked Charity back a good fifteen years into a past she rarely allowed herself to visit.
Doing her best to shrug off the evening, she walked through the abandoned field behind the Tumble Inn and made it to the sidewalk at the edge of Main Street, already feeling some of the tension melt away. The sun had started to set over the peaks to the west, swirling the sky with orange and pink and, on the very fringes, a purplish glow that signaled night was coming. A long sigh expelled the rest of her hostility toward Don Juan Bull Rider. She swore those mountains had magical powers.
Topaz Falls was a world away from the flat plains of Oklahoma—and the colorless memories of her past. When Levi Cortez had first invited her out here for an event a few years ago, she hadn’t planned on falling in love with the place. She’d been a lot of places in her career, and she’d never fallen in love with any of them. But the ridiculous beauty here somehow worked its way under her skin and made a place for itself in her heart.
Charity slowed her pace when she turned onto Main Street. It was like stepping onto the set of one of those Hallmark movies. Not that she watched them. Okay, she’d watched one. Once. It came on and she couldn’t find the remote, thanks to hosting a poker game with the guys the night before. They’d been fighting over whether to watch baseball or NASCAR, and in the struggle, somehow they’d cued up the Hallmark Channel and then they’d gone and lost the remote. It took her a whole day to find it stuffed deep into the couch, and in the meantime, she’d manually turned on the TV for some background noise. The movie hadn’t been that bad. A small-town love story where everything got seriously complicated but worked out in the end. And, sure, okay, it had made her tear up a little.
Anyway, downtown Topaz Falls had that same Hallmarky feel—cobblestone sidewalks, iron lampposts that were decorated for e. . .
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