Never fall in love with a cowboy
Jessa Mae Love is done with relationships. No matter how tempting he might be, she cannot—will not—fall for a man like Lance Cortez. The outrageously handsome cowboy is practically a living legend in Colorado, as famous for riding bulls as he is for breaking hearts. What would a big-time rodeo star like him see in a small-town veterinarian who wears glasses, rescues animals, and cries when watching rom-coms? Turns out, plenty.
Raising bulls, riding the circuit, and looking after his ailing father—Lance never stands still for long. Yet Jessa catches his attention, and the more she tries to resist him, the more he wants her. When she agrees to move to the ranch to keep an eye on Lance's dad, Jessa tells him they have to keep it professional: no flirting, no sweet talk, and definitely no kissing. But with Jessa now living under his roof, that's easier said than done . . .
Release date: February 28, 2017
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 368
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Funny how you can remember every detail about the most significant day of your life. Not the best day of your life necessarily, but the day that shaped you, the day that you were forced to find your strength.
Lance Cortez wandered to the bay window in his living room and stared out at the land that had been in his family since the Spaniards had crossed the mountains into Colorado and founded the town of Topaz Falls.
From his house situated on the valley floor, it seemed he could see every acre, from the razor-edges of Topaz Mountain to the pointed tips of the evergreens that studded the steep slopes. Even in the dimness of that eerie space preceding the dawn, he could make out the stables up the hill, the bullpens across from the pasture, and the house farther on down the hill where his father still lived. The house where he’d grown up. It was a ranch style, built from the logs of those trees on the mountain. Anchored by a wraparound porch.
Sixteen years ago, before dawn, he’d stood on that porch right there and watched his mother walk out of his life. He didn’t know what had woken him that day. Maybe the sound of the dog barking or the door creaking. But when he’d stumbled down the hallway, he’d caught her dragging her suitcase across that old porch.
“Where are you going?” he’d asked, not liking the weakness that had started to spread over his body like a dark shadow. Something in him already knew. She’d been distant for months, there but not.
His mother had paused on the sidewalk at the bottom of those porch steps, but she hadn’t looked at him. “I have to go away for a while,” she’d said. “I can’t do this anymore.”
He’d wanted to ask why, but couldn’t. He couldn’t open his mouth, couldn’t unfist his hands. She was leaving them. And he wondered if it had anything to do with the underage drinking ticket he’d gotten two days before. At fourteen, he knew he was a holy terror.
Or maybe it was the fact that his father was away so much, traveling to the rodeos, giving all of his time to a sport his mother hated.
“I’m sorry, Lance,” his mother had said. There were no tears in her eyes, but her voice caught. “I’m so sorry.”
That word gathered up the sadness that had weighted his bones and spun it into a whorl of anger. If she was sorry then why was she going?
“I hope you’ll understand someday.”
He didn’t. Sixteen years later, he had yet to understand how a mother could walk out on her husband and three boys who needed her. He’d been fourteen. He could take care of himself. But what about Lucas? At ten, he’d only just started the sixth grade. And Levi. Hell, he was still wetting the bed at seven.
Without another word, she’d walked away and hauled her suitcase into the old pickup. Energy had burned through him, tempting him to run down those steps and somehow force her to stay. He couldn’t, though. He knew it. He saw it in her eyes.
She’d already left them behind.
The engine had started and the tires ground against gravel. Lance had watched until the darkness swallowed the taillights and she was gone.
When he’d stepped back into the house, he was a different kid. Refusing to shed even one tear, he’d made himself a cup of coffee and omelets for his brothers. When his father came back that afternoon, he’d told him she was gone.
They’d never said another word about it.
In the months and years that followed, he’d tried to make up for her abandonment. He’d quit being such a delinquent. Watched over his brothers when their father was out searching for something to remedy his own pain. Became a bull-riding champion in his own right. But he couldn’t undo the damage she’d left in her wake. It took seven years after she left for things to fall apart.
He wished he would’ve been watching Levi that night he’d set the fire. Wished he’d been able to stop it before it killed the livestock. Wished he could’ve stopped it before it ruined them all. Lucas had wanted to take the blame, to protect their younger brother just like he always did, and Lance let him. They’d made a plan. Kept quiet about it. He’d been so sure Lucas would get off easy.
But he’d been wrong. Even though his brother had been only seventeen, they’d charged him as an adult and sent him to prison.
Nothing had ever been the same after that. Levi threw himself into bull riding and hadn’t been home in years. After Lucas got out of prison, he refused to come home. He’d gone on to work for a stock contractor down south and hadn’t been home since.
All because of one day. One rejection. One person who was supposed to care for them turning her back instead.
Funny how you remember the details of days like that. The words, the sounds, the feelings that’d turned your body cold. Funny how you spend every day for the rest of your life trying to forget them.
Turning his back on the view of that porch, Lance headed for the kitchen.
It was time to put the coffee on.
Sorry, sir.” Jessa Mae Love threw out her arms to block the heavyset man who tried to sit on the stool next to her. “This seat is taken.”
He eyed her, the coarseness of his five o’clock shadow giving his face a particularly menacing quality. Still, she held her ground.
“You been sittin’ there by yourself for an hour, lady,” he pointed out, scratching at his beer belly. “And this is the best spot to watch the game.”
“It’s true. I have been sitting here for a while.” She smiled politely and shimmied her shoulders straighter, lest he think she was intimidated by his bulk. “But my boyfriend is meeting me. We have an important date tonight and I know he’ll be here any minute.” She checked the screen of her cell phone again, the glowing numbers blaring an insult in her face. Seven o’clock. Seven o’clock?
Cam was never late. He’d been planning this date for more than a week. Since she was coming straight from the animal rescue shelter she owned, they’d agreed to meet at the Tumble Inn Bar for a drink before he took her to the new Italian restaurant on Main Street. “He’ll be here,” she said to the man. “Cam is very reliable.”
“Whatever,” the man grumbled, hunching himself on a stool three down from her.
Signaling to the bartender, she ordered another glass of pinot. “And why don’t you go ahead and bring a Bud Light for my boyfriend?” she asked with a squeak of insecurity. But that was silly because Cam would be there. He’d show up and give her a kiss and apologize for being so late because…his car broke down. Or maybe his mother called and he couldn’t get off the phone with her.
“He won’t let me down,” she muttered to cool the heat that rose to her face. He would never stand her up in this crowded bar—in front of the whole town.
Everyone considered the Tumble Inn the classiest watering hole in Topaz Falls, Colorado. And that was simply because you weren’t allowed to throw peanut shells on the floor. It was nice enough—an old brick auto shop garage that had been converted years ago. They’d restored the original garage doors and in the summer, they opened them to the patio, which was strung with colorful hanging globe lights. Gil Wilson, the owner, had kept up with the times, bringing in modern furniture and decor. He also offered the best happy hour in town, which would explain why it was so crowded on a Wednesday night.
She stole a quick glance over her shoulder. Were people starting to stare?
Plastering on a smile, she called Cam. Again.
His voice mail picked up. Again.
“Hey, it’s me.” She lowered her voice. “I’m kind of worried. Maybe I got the time wrong? Did we say we’d meet at six? Or seven? I guess it doesn’t matter. I’m here at the bar. Waiting for you…” A deafening silence echoed back in her ear. “Okay. Well I’m sure you’re on your way. I’ll see you soon.”
She set down the phone and took a long sip of wine. Everything was fine. It was true she hadn’t had very good luck with men, but Cam was different.
She drummed her fingers against the bar to keep her hand from trembling. Over the past ten years, she’d been almost engaged approximately three times. Approximately, because she wasn’t all that sure that a twist tie from the high school cafeteria counted as a betrothal, although her seventeen-year-old heart had thought it to be wildly romantic at the time. Little did she know, one year later, her high school sweetheart—the one who’d gotten down on one knee in the middle of the cafeteria to recite one of Shakespeare’s sonnets in front of nearly the whole school (did she mention he was in the drama club?)—would go off to college and meet the Phi Beta Kappa sisters who’d splurged on breast implants instead of fashionable new glasses like Jessa’s. Breast implants seemed to get you more bang for your buck in college. Who knew?
She pushed her glasses up on her nose and snuck a glance at the big man who’d tried to steal Cam’s seat earlier.
“Still no boyfriend, huh?” he asked as though he suspected she’d made up the whole thing.
“He’s on his way.” Her voice climbed the ladder of desperation. “He’ll be here soon.”
“Sure he will.” The man went back to nursing his beer and tilted his head to see some football game on the television screen across the room.
She was about to flip him off when an incoming text chimed on her phone. From Cam! “It’s him,” she called, holding up the phone to prove she wasn’t delusional.
“Lucky guy,” Big Man muttered, rolling his eyes.
“You got that right.” She focused on the screen to read the text.
Jessa, I left this morning to move back to Denver.
Wait. What? The words blurred. A typo. It must be a typo. Damn that autocorrect.
“What’s the word?” Big Man asked. “He comin’ or can I take that seat?”
“Um. Uh…” Fear wedged itself into her throat as she scrolled through the rest of the words.
I didn’t see a future for me there. In Topaz Falls or with you. Sorry. I know this would’ve been better in person, but I couldn’t do it. You’re too nice. I know you’ll find the right person. It’s just not me.
“Yours? Yours?” Ha. That was laughable. Cam had never been hers. Just like the others. Hadn’t mattered how nice she’d been. She’d been jilted. Again. This time by her animal rescue’s largest donor. And, yes, the man she’d been sleeping with…because he’d seemed like a good idea at the time. Women had slim pickings around Topaz Falls, population 2,345.
“Is he coming or not?” Big Man asked, still eyeing the empty stool.
“No. He’s not coming.” A laugh bubbled out, bordering on hysteria. “He broke up with me! By text!”
A hush came over the bar, but who cared? Let them all stare. Poor Jessa. Dumped again.
“It’s not like he’s a prize,” she said, turning to address them all. “He’s a technology consultant, for God’s sake. Not Chris Hemsworth.” Not that she knew what being a technology consultant meant. But it’d sounded good when she’d met him after she found his stray puggle wandering downtown six months ago. Peabody had pranced right up to her on the street and peed on her leg, the little shit. Now, Jessa was a dog person—an animal person—but that puggle had it out for her from day one.
When Cam had come in to retrieve his little beast from the shelter, stars had circled in her eyes. He was the first attractive man she’d seen since all those bull riders had passed through town three months ago. So unfair for those smokin’ hot cowboys to gather in town and get the women all revved up only to leave them the next day.
In all honesty, Cam was no cowboy. Though his slight bulk suggested he spent a good portion of every day sitting in front of a computer screen, his soft brown eyes had a kind shimmer that instantly drew you in. He’d been good to her—taking her out to fancy restaurants and buying her flowers just because. Also, because she’d saved his beloved varmint from the potential fate of being mauled by a mountain lion, he’d made monthly donations to the shelter, which had kept them going.
Now he was gone.
“I can’t believe this. How could he break up with me?”
Everyone around her had gone back to their own conversations, either unwilling to answer or pretending they didn’t hear. So she turned to Big Man. “I guess you’re happy about this, huh? Now the seat’s all yours.”
He didn’t even look at her. “Nope. I’m good right where I am, thanks.”
Oh, sure. After all that, now he didn’t want to sit by her? “Fine. That’s fine. It’s all fine.” Raising the glass to her lips, she drained the rest of her wine in one gulp.
“You know what?” she asked Big Man, not caring one iota that he seemed hell-bent on ignoring her. “I’m done.” This had to stop. The falling in love thing. It always started innocently enough. A man would ask her out and they’d go on a few dates. She’d swear that this time she wouldn’t get too attached too soon, but before she knew it, she was looking up wedding venues and bridal gowns and honeymoon destinations online. She couldn’t help it. Her heart had always been a sucker for romance. Her father had said it was her best quality—that she could love someone so quickly, that she could give her heart to others so easily. He got it because he was the same way. Her mother, of course, labeled it her worst quality. You’re simply in love with the idea of being in love, her wise mother would say. And it was true. Was that so wrong?
The gruffness of the quiet voice, aged by years of good cigars, snapped up her head. She turned.
Luis Cortez stood behind her, hunched in his bowlegged stance. Clad in worn jeans and sporting his pro rodeo belt buckle, he looked like he’d just stepped off the set of an old western, face tanned and leathery, white hair tufted after a long ride on his trusty steed.
“Hi there, Luis,” she mumbled, trying to hold her head high. Luis was her lone volunteer at the shelter, and he just might be the only one in town who loved animals as much as she did. He’d also been her dad’s best friend and since she’d come back to town last year to settle her father’s estate, she’d spent a lot of time with the man.
Maybe that was part of her problem with finding the love of her life. She spent most of her free time with a sixty-seven-year-old man…
“You all right?” Luis asked, gimping to the stool next to her. Seeing as how he was a retired bull-riding legend, it was a wonder he could walk at all.
“Uh.” That was a complicated question. “Yes.” She cleared the tremble out of her voice. “I’m fine. Great.” She would be, anyway. As soon as the sting wore off.
“Thought you and Cam had a date tonight.” Luis shifted with a wince, as though his arthritis was flaring again. “Where is he anyway? I was hopin’ I could talk him into puttin’ in his donation early this month. We gotta replace half the roof before the snow comes.”
Cam. That name was her newest curse word. Cam him! Cam it! Feeling the burn of humiliation pulse across her cheeks, she turned on her phone and pushed it over to him so he could read the text. “Cam broke up with me.” Luis had obviously missed the little announcement she’d made earlier.
He held up the phone and squinted, mouthing the words as he read. The older man looked as outraged as she was, bless him. “Man wasn’t good enough for you, anyways, Jess. He’s a damn fool.”
“I have a knack for picking the fools.” Just ask her mother. Every time she went through one of these breakups, Carla Roth, DO, would remind her of how bad the odds were for finding true love. Her mother had never married her father. She didn’t believe in monogamy. One person out of six billion? she’d ask. That is highly unlikely, Jessa.
It might be unlikely, but the odds weren’t enough to kill the dream. Not for her. Neither was the lack of any significant relationship in her mother’s life. Jessa had grown up being shuffled back and forth—summers and Christmas in Topaz Falls with her father and the rest of the year with her college professor mother who didn’t believe in love, secretly watching old romantic classics and movies like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail with wistful tears stinging in her eyes.
“Don’t worry, Jess,” Luis said in his kind way. “You’ll find someone.”
Big Man snorted.
Before she could backhand him, Luis gave her shoulder a pat. “My boys ain’t married yet,” he reminded her, as if she would ever be able to forget the Cortez brothers. Every woman’s fantasy.
Lance, the oldest, had followed in his father’s footsteps, though rumor had it this would be his last season on the circuit. He trained nonstop and had little time for anything else in his life, considering he left the ranch only about once a month. The thought of him married almost made her laugh. Over the years, he’d built quite the reputation with women, though she had no personal experience. Even with her father being one of his father’s best friends, Lance had said maybe five words to her in all the years she’d known him. He seemed to prefer a woman who’d let him off the hook easily, and God knew there were plenty of them following those cowboys around.
Then there was Levi. Oh, hallelujah, Levi. One of God’s greatest gifts to women. She’d had a fling with him the summer of their sophomore year, but after that he’d left home to train with some big-shot rodeo mentor and rarely came home.
There was a third Cortez brother, but Luis didn’t talk about him. Lucas, the middle child, had been sent to prison for arson when he was seventeen.
“Sure wish I’d see more of Levi,” Luis said wistfully. “He ain’t been home in a long time.”
Her eyebrows lifted with interest. “So, um…” She pretended to examine a broken nail to prove she didn’t care too much. “How is Levi, anyway?”
“That boy needs to get his head out of his ass. He’s reckless. He’s gonna get himself killed out there.”
Jessa doubted that. Levi Cortez was making a name for himself in the rodeo world.
“Lance, now, he’s the only one of my boys who’s got his head on straight,” Luis went on. “He always was a smart kid.”
From what she’d seen, the oldest Cortez brother had never been a kid, but she didn’t say so. After their mom ditched the family, Lance took over a more parental role. Not that she had any right to analyze him. “He’s handsome, too,” she offered, because every time she did happen to run into him, his luscious eyes had completely tied up her tongue. Yes, indeedy, Lance happened to be a looker. Though it was in a much different way than his cocky brother. “He looks the most like you,” she said with a wink.
Luis’s lips puckered in that crotchety, don’t-want-to-smile-but-can’t-help-it grin she loved to see. Her dad used to have one like that, too.
“Anyway…,” the man said, obviously trying to change the subject. “What’re we gonna do with Cam gone? I assume he didn’t leave any money behind for the shelter.”
“Not that I know of.” Apparently, he hadn’t left anything. Not even the toothbrush she’d kept at his house, Cam it.
“You got any other donors yet?”
“Not yet.” She’d been so preoccupied with the most recent love—infatuation—of her life that she hadn’t exactly made time to go trolling for other interested parties. Her dad had a big heart, but he’d always hated to ask for money, so when she’d come to take over, the list of benefactors had been…well…nonexistent. In one year, she’d already used most of what little money he’d left her to purchase supplies and complete the critical repairs. She could live off her savings for a couple more months, and at least keep up with the payroll, but after that things didn’t look too promising. She’d probably have to lay off her night shift guy.
With Cam’s generosity, she hadn’t been too worried. Until now, of course.
“Don’t you worry, Jess. Somethin’ll work out.” Luis’s confidence almost made her believe it. “You’re doin’ okay. You know that? Buzz would be proud.”
She smiled a little. Yes, her father definitely would’ve been proud to see his old place cleaned up. When she’d finished veterinary school and started on her MBA, he’d been so excited. He’d owned the rescue for thirty years but had never taken one business class. Which meant the place never made any money. He’d barely had enough to live on.
She had planned to change all of that. They’d planned it together. While she worked her way through business school, they’d talked on the phone twice a week, discussing how they could expand the place. Then, a month before she finished school, her father had a heart attack. He’d been out on a hike with Luis. Maybe that was why the man felt the need to take care of her, check in on her, help her fix things up around the house.
Familiar tears burned. She’d never blame Luis, though. That was exactly the way her dad would’ve chosen to go. Out on the side of a mountain, doing something he loved.
“We’ll find a way, Jess.” Pure determination turned the man’s face statuelike, making him look as pensive as his eldest son. “All we need is some inspiration.” Which he always insisted you couldn’t find while stuck indoors. “I’m headin’ up the mountain tomorrow. You wanna come?”
She brushed a grateful pat across the man’s gnarled hand. “I can’t, Luis. Thank you.”
As much as she’d like to spend the day on the mountain, drowning her sorrows about Cam and the rescue’s current financial situation in the fresh mountain air, she had things to do. This breakup had to be the dawn of a new era for her. She was tired of being passed over like yesterday’s pastries. To hell with relationships. With romance. She didn’t have time for it anyway. She had walls to paint and supplies to purchase and animals to rescue. Which meant she also had generous donors to find.
She shot a quick glance down at her attire. Might be a good idea to invest in herself first. Typically, she used her Visa only for emergencies, but this could be considered disaster prevention, right? She needed a new wardrobe. Something more professional. How could she schmooze potential stakeholders looking like she’d just come from a half-price sale at the New Life Secondhand Store?
“You sure you don’t want to come?” Luis prompted.
“I’d love to but I have to go shopping.” Right after their book club meeting, she’d enlist her friends to help her reinvent herself so she could reinvent her nonprofit.
By the time she was done, the Helping Paws Animal Rescue and Shelter would be everything her father dreamed it would be.
It would keep the memory of his love alive.
Easy, now, Wild Willy.” Raising his hands in stick-’em-up surrender, Lance eased closer to the barn stall, where his favorite training bull was backed against the wall, snorting and pawing at the ground like he was seeing red. Fuck. Sweat soaked the bull’s brown coat and for some reason those horns looked even more lethal in the dim light.
On a normal day, he didn’t enjoy standing eye-to-eye with one of his bovine athletes—especially before he’d finished his coffee—but this mean bastard had given him no choice.
Just as the coffeepot had started to hiss, Tucker, the stable manager and training wrangler, had come barreling into Lance’s kitchen hollerin’ about how Wild Willy had gone ape shit in the field. Seemed his favorite cow was flirting with another bull. In the process of proving his manhood by charging Ball Buster, Wild Willy had stepped in a hole and come out of the debacle with a limp. Which meant Lance had the pleasure of assessing the injury to see if they had to call out the vet.
“All over a woman,” he muttered. Last he’d checked, he was a bull rider, but some days he felt more like he was stuck on an episode of The Bachelor.
“Trust me, fella,” he said, easing closer to Wild Willy, who’d calmed some and was now chawing on a bundle of hay. “She’s not worth it.” Relationships in general weren’t worth it. “You’re better off alone.” Why put in all of that effort when almost every relationship ended with two people walking in opposite directions? Or two cows, in this case. “All right, Wild Willy. Let’s get a look at that hind leg.” Keeping a safe distance on the outside of the pen, he tested the bull with a sweep of his hand down its flank, which only riled it up again. The dumbass jolted away, slamming its rear end into the wall.
Shiiiiit. Whipping a bandanna out of his back pocket, Lance mopped sweat from his forehead. “You’re not gonna make this easy on me, are you?” he asked, backing off to give Wild Willy some space.
The bull tossed its head and snorted a confirmation.
“Don’t forget who feeds you. I own you.” And he needed this big guy right now. Only a few weeks until World Finals, and he had a hell of a lot of work to do to get ready. This season had pretty much sucked. Only one title and a whole lot of back talkin’ from fans about how he should’ve retired two years ago.
“Well, maybe I’m not ready to retire,” he said to the bull. Hell, he was only thirty. He could still go out on top. Even with his joints creaking the way they did. He’d ignored pain before, especially when he had somethin’ to prove. This wouldn’t be the first time.
But it might be the last.
No. Couldn’t think abo. . .
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