Unbridled Trails – Book 3 – Sneak Peek

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Unbridled Trails

Chapter 1

Summer 2002

Sherri

Insects expected so much less than humans.

“Rachiah, I’ll try to make it down, but no promises, okay?” Sherri leaned toward the phone base secured to the ornate side-table Cyan’s mother had picked out at a farmer’s market. “I gotta get going though. Cyan is taking me to Billings. Gotta get there tonight.” She hadn’t purchased her own car yet. First on her list since she’d secured a solid job.

They hung up, Sherri more irritated than before.

Thrusting her hands on her hips, she stormed into the foyer where Cyan stacked their bags. “Look, I’m fine with Rachiah heading to Wyoming to find her dad. I get that. But why do you have to stay here? Come with me. We can go visit ‘Chiah on long weekends.” Sherri’s last ditch attempt to make an old argument sound fresh missed its mark. And she knew it.

Everything paled for Cyan compared to the chance to see Jareth more. Heck, Sherri couldn’t even offer the prospect of hot entomologists because one, Cyan wouldn’t care, and two, Cyan wouldn’t believe her.

Sherri didn’t blame her.

Sighing, Cyan straightened and pushed her blue-streaked dark hair to the side. “You’re the one who has to work for the forest service in Billings – chasing those cow maggots.”

“Beetles.” Sherri grinned, hefting her tarantula cage with Tommy inside into her arms with extreme care. She’d have to get him a traveling case.

Cyan waved her hand, pursing her lips into a semblance of a scowl. “They’re all gross.” She faked gagging.

But bugs weren’t gross and Sherri didn’t feel like explaining once again how important studying the migration pattern of the invertebrate population in the Billings area was. Cyan only cared about the wolves or anything else endangered. What she didn’t seem to understand was that without the insects, there wouldn’t be any species to protect.

Cyan sobered and bit her lip. She shuffled her feet. “I wish it wasn’t so far away.”

“I know.” Sherri refused to give in to the melancholy of leaving her second childhood home with its comforting aromas of burning herbs and easy access to essential oils and all things vegan. Not to mention the easygoing attitude of Mr. and Mrs. Burns toward Sherri’s multi-legged pets. They never freaked out over a misplaced tarantula or a curious rhinoceros beetle crawling around the kitchen. She didn’t want to leave.

But at the same time, she needed to get out on her own. She needed to do something, anything, on her own.

“Promise you’ll be back.” Cyan pierced Sherri with a glare. “That can’t be your forever home.” She would hold Sherri to her promise, even if it was made under duress.

The promise wasn’t a difficult one to make. “Of course. You’re my family.” Sherri reached for Cyan with her empty arm, embracing the girl she’d do anything for. As much as Sherri loved her real family, there was something to be said for her girls, who would do anything for her – even live with her bugs.

Billings wouldn’t hold her there forever.

She’d be back.

She just didn’t know when.

~~~

Sherri

2003

Midsummer

Nothing was more appealing than the scent of dirt after a much-needed refreshing rain.

Sherri knelt, one knee resting on the damp mosses on the forest floor outside of Billings, Montana. The summer had taken its toll, the crust dry even under newly dampened needles.

Dark specks littered the green underbellies of leaves on the lower brush.

Somehow Sherri always spotted the telltale signs of the insects she sought. She’d much rather crawl around in the dirt of the forest floor than sit at a desk or talk to people.

Just thinking of the latter sent a shudder through her. Her offer to teach and research at the university hadn’t been big enough to overrule the desire to stay away from the idiot students. She’d graduated and hadn’t returned for her doctorate for a reason.

She snapped some pictures and recorded information. She wasn’t there to interrupt the habitat, just observe.

The radio clipped to her waist crackled. “Sherri, you ‘bout done? Over.”

Yanking the radio toward her lips, Sherri searched the surrounding woods. She pushed the button as late afternoon sunlight shafted through the sparse branches. “Copy. I’m coming in. Over.”

Man, she was going to miss that place. Her last radio call with the Billings Park and Recreation didn’t satisfy her need for connection. No one there had. They didn’t need her expertise on Western Pine Beetles anymore. The drought in that part of the state ended earlier that spring and now she had to move north. Plus, she’d sufficiently trained the rest of the staff so she wouldn’t have to return that way.

She’d made a promise.

“Had to” was the wrong connotation for what she would return north for. If she’d taken much longer than a year, Rachiah and Cyan would’ve been after her to get home anyway and they would’ve been much more forceful than the Bureau of Land Management.

And their compensation package wouldn’t have been as persuasive.

The short drive to the office didn’t cater to her melancholy. She’d packed up her last box at the apartment that morning. After she dropped her report off at the office, she could start her drive north.

To Taylor Falls, Clearwater County.

Sherri pushed through the double-doors to the office building. She wouldn’t miss the smell of burned popcorn that constantly pervaded the lower floors. But she would miss the easy access to the mulch for Tommy, and the constant access to crickets for his meals.

“Hey, girl. I’m going to miss you so much.” Linda, with her shortly bitten nails and long stringy hair, rushed to throw her arms around Sherri’s waist. “I brought in some doughnuts and milk with orange juice as a going away party. But… well, I think the guys got into them. There’s only a couple maple bars left.” She pulled away and shrugged apologetically. “Oh well, right? Us thick girls gotta watch our sugar.” She winked, her garish mauve eyeshadow obliterating any hopes at being coy.

Smiling in agreement, Sherri swallowed her groan. Thick. Only women thought of her as fat or big-boned. The guys didn’t have a problem with her curves.

Maybe that was the issue for the ladies.

Linda glanced over her shoulder as she returned to her receptionist desk. Tossing out a small laugh, she pointed at Sherri. “I mean, seriously, who ever heard of a fat vegan?” Her continued laughter scratched an already sensitive spot.

“Ha ha. Yeah.” Sherri hurried on, transferring her clipboard from her hand to under her arm. Hopefully, no one else was in the office. Sherri needed one of those doughnuts like she needed a warm blanket in the middle of summer. But at the same time…

She needed to get home. The stress was lower, nothing pushed her, nothing challenged her. No one tried to make her fit into a specific spot.

Her cell rang as she dropped the data-laden clipboard to the chipped desk in her soon-to-be-ex-boss’s empty office. She didn’t want to see anyone right then anyway.

Cyan’s number flashed on the caller ID. Sherri would have to slip out the back to avoid Linda and anyone else.

She flipped open the phone and muttered, “Having cold feet yet? I’ll be there in eight hours, I can spring you free.” Only half-joking, Sherri ducked out the door, nothing left in the office for her to pack.

“Ha. Ha. Very funny. No, I wanted to make sure you’re still coming. Rachiah tried canceling on me. I don’t think that’s funny.” Cyan sounded less than amused.

“Why would she cancel? You’re never getting married again – at least for a first time.” Sherri smirked. She had to tease Cyan. If she didn’t, who would?

Rounding the building and climbing into her small Nissan pickup, Sherri clenched her jaw. She’d drive through the night and barely get enough sleep the next day only to have to go out for Cyan’s bachelorette party. She forced a smile. “I’ll be there before you know it. We’ll have lots of fun and I promise Rachiah is going.” If I am, she is.

“Okay, thanks, Sher, I can’t wait to see you. Drive careful.” Cyan hung up her briskly. She’d rather talk to Jareth anyway, than waste time with anyone else.

Sherri popped Tim McGraw’s latest album into the CD player and buckled her seatbelt. She loved her truck. Her first sign of freedom. Of responsibility. She’d held down a job.

The fact that she didn’t feel anymore “adult” had to be in her head. She didn’t need to jump into marriage like Cyan, okay, Cyan wasn’t jumping into anything. She and Jareth had been dating a while. Sherri got that. But she didn’t need anyone to save her. She could take care of herself. She’d done it so far.

Plus, she couldn’t wait to get home.

Heck, yeah, and she missed her friends. She just wasn’t sure that the job and her friends were enough to liven up the small town feel of Taylor Falls.

The small town feel Sherri couldn’t seem to shake.

~~~

Sherri grabbed her last box and carried it into the small house she and Rachiah were renting together on the reservation from the Two-Claws.

Rachiah was supposed to arrive that afternoon. She better or Sherri would have to fill her throat with some fire ants. Okay, maybe she would just imagine doing it.

“Wow, you have your vindictive look on.” Cyan climbed the three cement steps to the front door and peeked inside. Her blue and yellow tie-dyed peasant shirt hung loosely over jeans and a collection of pearly beads dangled from her neck. She tucked a shock of blue hair behind her ear.

“Yeah, well, Rachiah’s cutting it close.” Sherri didn’t feel like being magnanimous toward her friend. She hadn’t slept at all due to the road construction on I-90 causing a horrible traffic jam before the turnoff to Clearwater. She’d been stuck in that dang black trap for three hours.

“She’ll be here.” Cyan smiled, swinging with one hand from the pole holding up the mini porch awning.

“Wow, your mood changed.” Sherri’s surly tone suggested she didn’t like the adjustment at all. “I’d been counting on you being cranky with me.”

“Nah, we’re going out with the girls tonight. It’s going to be so fun.” Cyan tapped her watch. “You need to get dressed. We have to meet Emma, Hannah, and Stefanie for dinner.”

Sherri paused with her foot half on and half off the top step “Wait, what? They’re too young and that’s really early. We weren’t supposed to go out until later.” There went her chance for a nap.

Cyan scrunched her nose. “I know. But Hannah and Stefanie wanted to do something and Emma can’t go out late. She hasn’t been feeling well. Remember, I told you about her? She’s been kind of run down lately, and Nate is nervous about her using too much energy.”

Right, the sister-in-law with the cancer. Sherri didn’t mean to think so bluntly, but her fatigue wore at her. “I’m going to need some serious coffee. What are we doing after dinner?” She’d been counting on the free time to catch up on her sleep.

“Drinks in Colby. Rachiah has a friend who works at the bar down there. Said we might be able to get some karaoke going or something.” She wiggled her eyebrows and smirked. “I know how much you love singing in front of others.”

“Yeah, I’ll drive separate.” Sherri didn’t want to be a poor sport, but she might not make it to the wedding the next day, if she didn’t have enough sleep.

Cyan stopped swinging around the pole and studied her friend. She nodded slowly. “Okay, I understand. We can follow each other. If you need to leave early, no stress, okay?”

That would work. If Sherri left early enough, maybe she wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel.

~~~

Emma leaned across the orange vinyl table cloth and offered the cardboard party hat to Sherri with a sympathetic shrug. “You get to wear this now, Sherri. I need to get going.” She winked at Cyan and then Rachiah in turn. “It was nice seeing you girls again. I‘ll see you tomorrow at the ceremony.” She held up a finger. “Wait, are you all coming to my place still to get ready beforehand?”

Cyan glanced at Rachiah and Sherri. “I believe so, I left the dresses at Rachiah and Sherri’s place.” She’d claimed a chair at the end of the booth rather than squeeze into one of the bench seats with the girls.

“Sounds good.” Just go. Sherri smiled enough to agree but not enough to spark another conversation. The sooner Emma and Nate’s two sisters left, the sooner the rest of them could get on with their night and then head to bed.

Sherri hadn’t even had a chance to make her bed at the new place. She’d stacked her bedding on the mattress and stared at it forlornly before leaving.

“We’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Emma smiled softly as she scooted out of the booth behind Stefanie and Hannah. Sweet girls. In fact Sherri would love to spend time with them, when she wasn’t so close to passing out. Hannah was still too young to go to the bar.

The bar right next door.

Cyan pointed toward the adjoining door and spoke to the waitress. “We’re just going next door, can we move our tab?”

Sherri tapped the table. “Aren’t they owned by the same guy? I bet the tabs transfer easily.”

The waitress followed Sherri who followed Rachiah who was led by the over-confident bride—bedecked out in her toilet paper bridal shower dress and glittery tiara. No one could say the group lacked class, even if it was trashy.

Sherri snorted at her inner dialogue. Oh, she was getting a little carried away. She had just eaten. A little coffee combined with over-fatigue. She wasn’t the smartest sometimes. Now she was going to add alcohol to the mix.

“Oh, let’s sit at the bar. We always sit at booths or tables.” Cyan tugged Rachiah’s arm and the tall black-haired Native American woman sent pleading glances toward Sherri as she allowed herself to be dragged toward the seats at the end of the counter.

Sherri scuffed her boots along the uneven planked flooring as she picked out a path behind them. There weren’t too many people inside the dark interior of the bar. A man with a stained flannel wiped at the inner perimeter of the counter with an even more stained white-ish towel. But he manned a glass countertop that sparkled. He may have seemed unkempt but his work space was immaculate.

Sherri nodded shyly at his welcoming grin. She wasn’t into new people, hardly at all and being at a bar on a Friday night didn’t sit well with her introverted tendencies. She preferred bugs. Creatures with easy to understand needs and certainly fewer motives than the average person.

Cyan and Rachiah finally slid onto a set of seats and Sherri followed suit, claiming the stool with a plop and a sigh. She rubbed her eyes and stared blearily across from her into the bottle-blocked mirror, ignoring the shadows under her own eyes or the droopy lilt to her softly curled hair.

“Hey,” He sidled up beside her, like his sunglasses would introduce him in the dark ambience as somehow cooler, somehow more desirable. His voice rolled off his tongue like a dose of cod liver oil with the bitter aftertaste. “You and your friends haven’t been in here before.” He slid his shades down his nose, displaying his studying beady eyes as he trailed his gaze on her from head to foot and then on to Rachiah and then Cyan.

Sherri glanced at her friends who were lost in conversation, bemoaning the loss of an autumn wedding and the fact that the temperature was supposed to be in the nineties the next day.

With no backup at the moment, Sherri couldn’t get her mind to snap out of the haze her tiredness draped over her.

And when was the last time a guy had been interested in her? When had she been away from work? She wrapped her fingers around the glass the bartender placed in front of her. When had Cyan ordered her a cranberry vodka? Sherri’s favorite. She smiled her thanks at the bartender and stirred the drink with the mini straw.

The bartender watched the man beside her. But while Sherri should’ve been flattered, she was still more tired than anything. Did she need someone to date? She wasn’t exactly interested in romance or being wooed. She sipped her drink.

Not that the snake-charmer next to her was someone she’d ride into the sunset with.

Avoiding the man beside her and his creepy gaze, Sherri glanced around the interior of the dim bar. Neon signs blazed beside old fashioned pictures framed in contemporary styles. Tall wooden backs separated the booths that lined the wall and standard rectangular tables manned the center of the room. A jukebox with CDs inside pulsed softly from the corner opposite the door.

An arresting man claimed a chair with the dominance of a well-fed mountain lion. He leaned his arm on the table beside him. His bright blue eyes watched her. He was more what she imagined her type to be – a brooding Mr. Darcy with a cowboy hat curved at the brim and a jawline tense with displeasure.

He didn’t come her way or show any interest. Or show anything much beyond irritation. He nonchalantly left his ankle crossed over his knee, while giving off the aura that he was ready to pounce. On her? She couldn’t be certain.

Still the salesman sat beside her, chattering like she didn’t need to participate in the conversation.

She sipped more of her drink, the cold tartness a welcome relief after the increasingly let-down day.

Nodding at random points in the one-sided conversation, Sherri glanced again at the man sitting at the table. The intensity of his gaze brought goosebumps to her arms and she shivered. If she tried hard enough, would she be able to get him to interrupt? Probably not. The man beside her settled onto the stool beside her, essentially laying claim to the spot.

Great. Not what she wanted. And now, the man with the eyes probably wouldn’t approach her, thinking she was taken or something.

Couldn’t she get any of the good ones?

Chapter 2

Kyle

Kyle wasn’t going to sit idly by while the reputation-ruining jerk destroyed another innocent woman. Guy Lansing prowled the watering holes like a dang predator, out to claim the least likely to protect herself.  

He watched as Guy approached the trio and snagged onto the lagging friend on the end. The droop to her shoulders and the slouchy way she hung onto the bar suggested she was either already on her way to drunk or dejected in another manner.

Guy would pick up on that like a coyote after the weak or old.  He had those predator instincts.

Hadn’t Kyle known that already with Ruby’s experience?

He curled his fingers tight to his palm, cutting his short nails into the fleshy part. No matter what, Guy wouldn’t be allowed to take advantage of another girl against her will. At least if Kyle had anything to say about it.

Kyle watched the pair as she glanced his way. He couldn’t help studying her.

She was exactly the type of girl Kyle tried to stay away from. Her doe eyes and soft hair held more appeal than any girl with heavy makeup and tight clothing could. Her curvy figure couldn’t hide beneath her long sweater and jeans. She was more temptation than Kyle needed.

Maybe just once he wouldn’t play hero – there might be more involved than just stopping a predator from making another victim. He needed to focus on continuing his plans for revenge. Jareth thought he was taking the big brother thing a little far, but then again, Jareth hadn’t seen Ruby the morning after or taken her to the doctor a few weeks later.

Jareth wouldn’t understand – because Kyle hadn’t told him everything.

The woman at the bar half-shrugged at Guy and looked toward her friends who motioned toward the bathrooms and got up to leave her for a moment.

Kyle couldn’t make out faces in the darkened interior or from his angle of seating. The woman nodded, her shoulders slumping more.

Guy claimed the opportunity with her back turned and put something into her drink, stirring it with his finger.

Kyle had seen too much now not to be involved.

She didn’t deserve that. No one deserved what Guy planned.

Motioning to the waitress that he wanted his check, Kyle stood to pull his wallet from his jeans. With one eye on the pair, Kyle paid his small tab, but the waitress dropped her tray, money falling to the floor.

Bending, Kyle swept the bills onto her tray and stood again. He retrained his gaze toward the couple. Alarmed, he stepped in that direction, his hand outstretched.

The girl was already sipping from her drink. Guy watched her hungrily and glanced past her for her friends every few seconds.

Normally, Kyle set up some kind of interruption with whichever bartender was on to get the girl away without Guy knowing Kyle was involved. But this time, he hadn’t acted fast enough. And he didn’t know that particular bartender since they’d never been in Colby before. Sure, they’d skirted Taylor Falls and half the other towns in Clearwater County, but Colby was a new one.

Alarmed, Kyle rushed the final distance to the woman’s side and wrapped an arm around her shoulders for the potential need for support. “You okay, darlin’?” She smelled more like citrus which was a refreshing change from the musty odor of the bar like spilled alcohol and stale peanuts.

She glanced up at him, her brown eyes more like caramel than the dark chocolate he’d envisioned. Nodding, she blinked as her eyelids drooped. “Yes, thank…” She sagged against him, her weight pushing on his chest.

Training his steely gaze on Guy, Kyle lifted his chin. “Working on your next victim, Guy?” He didn’t let the woman go. If he did, she’d certainly collapse to the floor.

The thin man jerked back, his sunglasses slipping from his nose to dangle from one ear while he lifted his hands like a shield. “Darby. What are you doing here? I thought you were up around White Fish this season.” H said the last with accusation in his tone.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, worthless weasel.” Kyle glared at the man who shifted his gaze between his female target and her would-be rescuer.

Guy’s worry turned to smugness. “Oh, I see. You want to claim her. You’re letting me do all the work and you swing in to reap the benefit. I get it. Okay.” He winked and leaned forward, punching Kyle on the upper arm. “Next time, I’ll find a duo for us to share –” He yanked backwards at the anger simmering in Kyle’s growl.

“I‘m going to follow you everywhere. I’ll be at every bar, at every party you go to. You might not be able to see me, but I’ll be there, watching you.” Kyle’s voice rumbled from deep in his chest with unrequited fury he struggled to maintain. “If this happens again, I’m going to find a place to put your body where no one will ever think to look.”

Kyle thrusted his jaw toward the door, everything in him demanding that he lay into the snake but the gentleman in him refused to drop the woman. “Go on. Git.” Guy didn’t even take the time to scowl before scampering out the exit like a dog with his tail between his legs.

“Thanks, man. I had my suspicions, but nothing concrete. This is the fourth time he’s been in here this week.” He slid a bottle of Moose Drool, a dark huckleberry ale, across the bar to Kyle. “This one’s on me.”

Leaning his head to the side, Kyle peeked at his current damsel-in-distress. “Thanks, I appreciate it. Wait a minute. Is she sleeping?”

Her light brown hair hung across her face, softly moving with the puffs of air from her nose as she breathed.

“’Appears so.” The bartender tapped the counter. “The other two spilled something. They should be right back. This one drove her own rig from what they were saying. You look familiar, you one of them Trails working out at the Jonesy ranch?” He moved as if to round the counter, motioning to the four people at the end of the bar who walked up to order.

“Yeah, I’m standing foreman.” Kyle nodded, his hat dipping and lifting.

Nodding, the bartender pulled open Sherri’s small purse dangling from her shoulder and dug until he produced a small ring of keys. “Can I help you get her outside?”

Kyle glanced at them then back at the girl. “Nah, it’s okay. What color is her car?”

Passing the keys to Kyle, the bartender arched an eyebrow. “Color doesn’t matter. It’s the only Nissan for miles around.”

Nissan, huh? What was wrong with a Ford or Chevy? Nothing wrong with Dodge either – heck, at least you could trust a Dodge owner. You didn’t have to agree with their obviously wrong choice but at least you could trust ‘em.

“Thanks. I can do it. I’ll be back in a bit.” He hefted her into his arms, her solid form fitting against him like they’d been created to match up.

The bartender slapped the counter twice. “I’ll tell her friends you got her out of here so they don’t worry about her.”

Only he couldn’t ignore the soft scent of citronella and oranges coming off her skin. She was intoxicating and he hadn’t even spoken to her.

Leaning backwards a bit, Kyle carried her through the doors, pushing with his hips to get out and took less than a moment to locate the shiny Nissan pickup in the parking spot along the street.

Close to the bar. Perfect. He started toward the side of the truck. Beside the driver side door, he allowed her feet to carefully slide to the ground to help rest some of her weight on the floor. He opened the door and shifted her inside.

Movement caught his eye from across the street and just outside the circles of light cast down by the streetlights Guy waited. His beady eyes glinted as he moved. He watched Kyle. Or was he watching the girl to see what would happen?

Kyle glanced at the building. Did he take the chance to dart inside and tell her friends? Or would it be better to get her out of there and somewhere safe before coming back and getting her friends? The bartender had assured him he’d pass on the information. Kyle would have to trust that he would.

His gaze darted to where Guy had hidden in the shadows. Kyle’s worry mounted as he realized he had no idea where Guy had slipped off to.

Everything was going to crap. Nothing was sticking to routine. Kyle never had this kind of trouble trying to save a girl from Guy. Why now? Why today?

The sudden disappearance of the rapist worried Kyle enough to push away his need to tell her friends and just get her the hell out of there.

Kyle would have to call his brother and let him know he didn’t need a ride back from Colby. Knowing he’d most likely have her drive him to the ranch the next day – hopefully before the wedding.

He glanced down at her lying across his lap as he adjusted her in the bench seat. He closed the door and turned the key he’d retrieved from her small bag.

If she didn’t wake soon to tell him where she lived, they‘d be sleeping at a camp along the side of the road. He couldn’t take her to the ranch bunkhouse and he couldn’t afford a hotel.

Maybe he could wake her up enough to get directions to her place. Leaning down, Kyle gently shook her shoulder. “Excuse me, are you awake? Hello?” He jostled her again and sighed in relief as she fluttered her eyes open. He spoke softer, but loud enough to get her attention. “Where do you live? I need to get you home.”

She groaned and tried lifting her hand only to have it fall to her side. “Um, I’m at the Two-Claw cabin… um… Res…” Her eyes slid shut and her breathing deepened. She mumbled, “Pretty eyes.”

Straightening, Kyle considered her. Had she been talking about his eyes or Guys? More concerning was her description of her home. Grimly pulling from the curb, Kyle pursed his lips. That late at night on the reservation? Hopefully he could get onto the reservation without being spotted. Their circumstances were extremely suspicious and he’d have a hard time explaining things to the Redhawks.

Hopefully, she told the truth. Kyle would hate to drive onto the reservation and have nowhere to go. That’d be guaranteed danger.

He pinched the bridge of his nose.

The girl was already shaping up to be more trouble than Kyle had bargained for.

Chapter 3

Sherri

Had she fallen asleep with a mouthful of wood lying on her tongue? Sherri worked her throat but the slight movement combined with blinking too quickly shoved a wave of dizziness into her ears like q-tips.

She squeezed her eyes shut, wincing at the over-sensitivity. Inhaling deep through her nose, she slowly opened them again.

The sun wasn’t over bright which didn’t mean anything since Sherri’s bedroom window faced north. Thank Heaven.

Sitting up, she glanced around her new-yet-to-be-used bed. She hadn’t changed, had in fact slept in the clothes she’d worn out. Wait a minute. She hadn’t made her bed either, but there she was lying on top of a comforter tucked neatly over her sheets and her covered pillow. Maybe she’d come home and made the bed? Doubtful. She didn’t remember much of anything.

Except for the eyes. Boy, did she remember the eyes.

Great. She’d never hear the end of it from the girls. Getting trashed wasn’t Sherri’s thing. It wasn’t any of their “thing”. So the very rare times it had happened, the person didn’t live it down for a long time.

The tinkling of glass in the kitchen made her hang her head. She’d definitely hear about it from Rachiah. Good thing Sherri hadn’t slept in long enough to miss the wedding.

She snapped her head up, thrusting upward from the bed and rushing toward the hall. Her nervous adrenaline pushed aside the inevitable nausea, but the headache was a new one.

The wedding! How much time did Sherri have?

Rubbing at her eyes, she covered the hallway with a few strides. “How long do we have? I didn’t mean to fall asleep last night. Thanks for getting me home, ‘Chiah.” Sherri stopped at the doorway to the small kitchen and dining room combo.

Rachiah wasn’t standing at the stove.

No, some guy with jeans and no shirt and bare feet stood with a hip against the counter, sipping a chipped mug of coffee.

At least the fragrance hinted at coffee.

Damp dark auburn hair fell across his forehead. “Mornin’.” His drawl was long and drawn out as he took in her disheveled appearance.

Sherri’s mouth fell open. She glanced around at Rachiah’s closed bedroom door. “Um…” She tried not to stare at his well-defined pecs and abs and shoulders… wow, those shoulders… but it was hard.

The play on words made her giggle. She was out of her gourd. She blinked a couple times. His eyes. They were so familiar. So blue.

She pointed toward her friend’s door. “I’m sorry. Is Rachiah coming out soon?” One night stands weren’t Rachiah’s thing either, but from the looks of the cowboy standing in the kitchen, he’d be a strong temptation for anyone to get a new “thing”.

He cocked an eyebrow at her and lowered his mug. “Rachiah?”

Sherri scoffed, rolling her eyes. “You should probably know someone’s name before you go home with them, don’t you think?” She crossed to her purse lying haphazardly on the floor under the table.

“Rachiah? Okay, third person, that’s weird but okay, I’ll play. How did Rachiah sleep? Kyle didn’t sleep so well, but Rachiah kicks a lot in bed.” He winked and smiled knowingly.

Swinging her purse over her shoulder, Sherri screwed her lips to the side. “Ew, I don’t want to know what you two did.” She rapped her knuckles on Rachiah’s door panel, giving Kyle the once-over and continued, “Rachiah, time to get up, girl. Your date is a little creepy.”

“Wait, you’re not Rachiah? Than who are you?” He set the cup down and crossed the linoleum floor to stand in front of her. His muscles flexed as he moved and Sherri avoided staring directly at his chest.

Or tried to appear like she wasn’t staring. Okay, forget it. She stared, slowly dragging her gaze to his mesmerizing eyes. She cleared her throat. “I’m Sherri. Rachiah’s roommate. I don’t remember you coming home with her last night.” She couldn’t admit that she didn’t remember much of anything last night after the oily man started talking to her.

“You wouldn’t. I came home with you. Sherri.” He walked back toward her bedroom, humming as he sauntered away.

Why did he wear it like a crown and she felt like she’d just done the walk of shame?

Shock held her back for a split second, then she rushed after him. “Wait, what?” Not possible. She didn’t go home with random men. Even if they did look like Kyle.

Inside her bedroom door, he bent to pick up his shirt but jerked his hand to his waist. The sudden tension in his back muscles probably held in a silent scream for how fast he recoiled to the opposite wall.

“Don’t move!” He held his hand toward her to stop her coming into the room.

“What? Oh my gosh, what is it?” She angled her head around his arm. Nothing unusual caught her eye. Tommy crawled across a flannel shirt thrown over a pile of boxes. At least Tommy was safe. She signed in relief. She took inventory of her unpacked room. Nothing alarming stood out to her. “What?”

He whispered out of the side of well-sculpted lips. “There’s a huge spider walking towards us. Do. Not. Move.”

Sherri’s eyes widened and she stared between Kyle and Tommy. The seriousness of the situation wasn’t lost on her as she ducked under Kyle’s arm. “He’s more afraid of you, than you are of him.” She leaned down and slowly coaxed Tommy onto her palm. She pierced Kyle with her gaze. “Please, don’t tell me those big bad muscles are hiding one huge baby.” She arched her eyebrows in challenge as the soft silky legs of her tarantula tickled the palm of her hand.

Kyle’s chest moved up and down in a jerky rhythm. He held his hands to the sides, palms up. “Um, he’s going to bite you and I don’t know where the closest hospital is. You’ll be dead before we get to your truck.”

Sherri crossed to Tommy’s cage and placed him inside with care. She replaced the lid and flipped on his sun light.

Then she turned, unable to contain her laughter any further. “Are you serious with that? He’s a tarantula. He’s not going to bite you. Not poisonous either. Most spiders don’t have the right anatomical structuring to bite us – it’d be like us trying to bite a wall.” She giggled, still seeing in her mind how his fear had tightened his facial muscles and clenched his back like a tight rubberband.

The absence of answering humor on his face sobered Sherri immediately. She stepped forward until she was close enough to place her hand on his forearm. “I’m sorry. It’s really not funny that you’re scared. I’m just not used to a big strong man reacting like that…” Her voice trailed off. She didn’t have the words to make her reaction to his fear okay.

She tried not focusing on the rippling strength beneath her fingers or the heat emanating from his bare skin. “It’s not funny. Most people don’t like spiders. I’m more afraid of fire than I am bugs.” She shrugged. “Everyone’s different.”

Then reality hit her. “Wait, you stayed here last night? In my room? With me?”

There was nowhere else to sleep. They didn’t have a couch yet and the floor wasn’t exactly a hospitable place to expect him to sleep, but she didn’t go home with guys. That wasn’t her. She swallowed. “I don’t… I’m sorry. I’m not sure what… happened.”

He stared at her and then humor finally washed his fear away. “Now that’s funny. Darlin’, when I take you to bed, you’ll remember it. Actually I drove you here because the scumbag hitting on you slipped something into your drink. He’s the worst type of creature and I didn’t think it would be fair to let you fall victim to that.” He ran his hands through his thick hair. “And for the record, I like spiders just fine. I’m just not accustomed to seeing one the size of a duck on my shirt.”

Sickened that the man had tried drugging her, Sherri picked up Kyle’s shirt and handed it to him. How could someone do that? Don’t look at Kyle’s stomach or his chest – don’t do it, Sherri. Crap, you did it.

“You didn’t drink enough to get plastered. My guess is there was enough drug in there for a full glass and you had less than a fourth remaining. You probably had a much stronger dose than you should’ve.” He drew his shirt on like he had an idea what the sight of his muscles did to women.

His kindness overthrew her and she stared at him a moment. “Well, thank you. That was very chivalrous of you.” That combined with the intensity of his blue gaze and she couldn’t help the small crush building in her chest.

But she didn’t need help. And the fact that he’d helped her, saved her from a fate she didn’t want to think about, irked her just enough to raise her hackles.

He glanced around. “No problem. Listen, is it okay if I borrow your phone? My battery’s dead.” He jerked his thumb toward the hallway. “I don’t usually have a phone on me, but my brother makes me take one when I go… out.”

It took a moment for Sherri to register what he said. “Oh, yes, of course.” She pulled out the cell from her purse. A green blinking light on the face of her phone drew her eye. “I have some missed messages. Just a second.”

Two from Rachiah.

First one had come in the night before.

“Glad that cowboy took you home. Bartender said who he was. Get some sleep, I’ll probably sleep over at Cyan’s. She’s freaking out with nerves.”

The second one had come in just moments before.

“Where are you? Cy will kill you if you’re not here in the next ten minutes! You better not be dead in a ditch somewhere!”

Sherri squinted at the clock. “Oh my gosh, is it really that late? I need to go.” She tossed the phone at Kyle, rushing around the room as she gathered up the dresses Cyan had left at their place. All of the dresses were there. Cyan’s, Rachiah’s, Sherri’s, and Emma’s. No one had their dresses because of Sherri.

She didn’t have time to drool over the hot cowboy any further. She had to rush around and get in the truck for survival.

Nothing was scarier than Cyan on a rampage.

Kindle

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