I’ve never seen anything so ridiculous, thought Laney Broward as she watched her friends openly fawn over Austin Johns. For almost the entire evening, Mara and Robyn had been taking turns narrating a play-by-play of his every move.
She glanced around the enormous room crowded with men and women kicking up their heels and tossing back drinks as they danced the night away to a live band.
Hundreds of glittering snowflakes were suspended from the ceiling supported by huge Greek-style columns wrapped in shimmery silver brocade. Round tables draped in white tulle with gray organza bows surrounded the perimeter, each topped with miniature candelabra where ivory candles provided a romantic glow in the dimly-lit room.
It was the perfect setting for a New Year’s Eve gala. The effect was magical, mystical, and filled with the promise of something special. Then why did Lacey feel so out of place?
“What’s he doing now?” Robyn asked, craning her neck like an ostrich.
“Oh, he’s just being gorgeous,” Mara reported with a giggle.
Laney rolled her eyes. “I think that’s the worst line I’ve ever heard. I hope you weren’t going to use that one.”
Mara’s face fell momentarily and then immediately lit up. “I think he’s headed this way!” she exclaimed.
Laney planted herself in front of them, blocking their view.
“Both of you have been around horses too long,” she admonished. “Austin is just a man. He walks and talks and eats just like we do.”
Her friends, who were also her favorite teammates on the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team, stared at her like she was crazy. Both had consumed a fair amount of champagne, while Laney had been nursing the same glass of bubbly for over an hour.
“Well, at least we recognize perfection when we see it,” Robyn scolded.
Mara raised her glass. “I’ll drink to that!” she slurred.
Laney turned away slightly, refusing to concede to their good-humored jab. She eyed an oversized clock that hung just above the ballroom doors. It was thirty minutes to the “Big Kiss Moment” and she was dateless.
Worst, she had to be on her best behavior. On New Year’s Eve, no less! Not that she would have done anything really crazy. Her reputation was sound and she wanted it to stay that way.
Ever since Laney had won the Gold Medal at the Summer Olympics in London, the media frenzy had been glowing—and rabid. For a while she basked in the attention, as any sane person would, but she also knew how quickly the media could turn from being your best friend to your worst enemy. She just didn’t want it to happen at a gala event sponsored by Austin, or anyone else for that matter.
Laney’s stomach knotted as she quickly scanned the perimeter of the room. There was no telling if or where the paparazzi was hiding. She was on high alert and not taking any chances. There was no way she was going bring in the new year as the subject of one of those tacky celebrity viral videos.
Laney took a sip of her lukewarm drink and almost gagged. “No man is perfect,” she scoffed, turning back to face her friends.
“Really?” Robyn accused, placing one hand on her hip. “You’d have to be a horse’s you-know-what not to see that Austin is the epitome of every woman’s dream.”
“Not me,” she insisted. “I barely know the man.”
A true statement, although it wasn’t like she’d never met Austin. On several occasions, he’d been out to the BWB, the Broward family ranch located in Granger, Montana, to conduct business with Laney’s mother, Gwendolyn. They’d also run into each other in London during the Olympics.
Mara peered down her nose at Laney. “You don’t have to know the man to appreciate, and take advantage of, everything he has to offer.”
Laney stifled a mocking laugh. Both times she’d seen Austin, he hadn’t given her anything more than a polite handshake and some friendly conversation. And she was supposed to take advantage of him? She may be dateless, but she wasn’t desperate.
One thing Laney did know about Austin, and did not appreciate, was his reputation as a ladies man. He ran through women like a wild stallion galloping through endless prairie grass. Tongues wagged that his conquests were as global as his appetite for travel: Paris, Barcelona, Rome.
But as far as she knew, no one in the little town of Granger had been able to saddle him — even for one night.
Laney pursed her lips to stifle a fierce retort. Defending herself to her friends would only lead to an argument, which was no way to end what had been a very successful year for the trio.
“Just look, Laney,” Robyn implored with a nudge of her elbow. “Start with his body, and go from there.”
“As if you’d want to go anywhere else,” Mara added with a wicked smile.
Laney tensed when Mara put her hands on her shoulders, forcing her to turn around and admit to herself what every other woman in the room already knew: Austin Johns was the most handsome man at the ball.
Her heart did a little skip as she watched Austin weave his way through the crowded dance floor. When he paused, the women gravitated towards him and the men just wanted to shake his hand, perhaps hoping some of the “Austin mojo” would rub off on them.
The millionaire horse breeder took all the attention in stride, as if he were just out for a stroll, rather than combing through a sea of gyrating bodies. At about 6 feet, 3 inches tall, he towered over all the women and many of the men. Laney cast her head over her shoulder toward her friends. They were both wearing I-told-you-so grins, but she wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction that they were right all along.
A waiter swung past with an empty tray and she handed him her champagne flute.
“I’m going to get some fresh air. Why don’t you two go out on the dance floor and mingle before we all turn back into pumpkins?”
“As long as Prince Charming is there to whisk me away into his carriage, I’m there,” Mara announced, kicking off her shoes. “C’mon, Robyn.”
Laney watched her friends get swallowed up into a line dance. They stumbled frequently, like two colts trying to get a sense of the ground. It was a comical sight and she found herself smiling, in spite of her cautious mood.
Prince Charming. There’s no such thing.
“Especially in Montana,” she muttered as she walked through the estate’s massive foyer. Being single definitely had its challenges in Big Sky Country, where there were more cattle per square foot of land than eligible men. Laney was thankful she had her horses to keep her mind off the lack of suitable dating options and she looked forward to returning home to Granger tomorrow.
Right now though, she had to get through tonight.
After a quick visit to the ladies room, Laney hurried outside to the place where she felt most comfortable—no matter what city, state or country she happened to be visiting at the moment—the stables.
Earlier in the evening, Austin, the primary sponsor of the evening’s gala, had used the stable to unveil his plans for a new therapeutic riding center in Dallas. Laney and her friends had arrived late to the event and had missed his presentation, so she was eager to learn more. Now was as good a time as any to get a sneak peek.
She rubbed her bare arms as she followed the paved driveway around the estate. While it rarely snowed in Dallas, the evening’s low temperature was a chilly reminder to its inhabitants that it very well could.
Laney arrived at the stable moments later. It wasn’t far from the main house and the evening’s festivities were amplified through strategically placed outdoor speakers. She heard the lead singer from the band loudly informing the crowd that there were only ten more minutes to midnight. When she looked back, she saw that the ballroom doors were open and guests mingled outside on the stone terrace, chattering and laughing.
Eager for peace and quiet, Laney tugged on the service door of the stable and slipped inside. As she eased it closed, she breathed in deeply and smiled.
They were all here. The odors of pungent earth, of crisp hay and alfalfa, of sawdust and pine, of leather and oil. Real. Tangible. A part of the air, a part of her.
As a child, the gentle eyes of the horses had wooed her. She fell in love and never looked back. In the stables, she didn’t have to hide. Not even from herself.
“It’s about time you showed up.”
The voice had the slow, easy drawl of a cowboy. None too hurried, and always sexy.
Laney heard her shocked breath whistle through her teeth. She blinked in the low light, but couldn’t see anyone. She took a step back and placed her hand on the door, ready to book at any moment.
Seconds later, she heard a teasing chuckle and a neigh of disapproval.
“Don’t pout, Sadie, I’ll be back to check on you in the morning,” Austin soothed. He emerged from a large stall at the far end of the stable. “But right now, I must see why this beautiful young lady has been ignoring me all night.”
She let go of the doorknob. “How did you know I was here?”
Austin shrugged. “I didn’t exactly, but I figured if you were going anywhere on the grounds, it would be to the stables. I knew you couldn’t ignore me here.”
Ignoring him? Lord knows I’ve tried, she thought.
But Austin certainly had Laney’s attention now as he sauntered towards her. Tux unbuttoned and flaps secured behind hands stuck in his pockets. The black bowtie gone and the black Stetson on. He stopped only a few feet away and in the dim halo of yellowish-light cast by the fixtures above their heads, his expression was unreadable, yet tantalizing.
“You scared me!” she managed to whisper, not wanting to disturb the horses. “I thought you were some crazy journalist sneaking around wanting to take my picture.”
Austin squared his hands like a makeshift camera against his eyes and peered through them. “Say cheese.”
Laney’s heart raced against her will under his pretend lens. To be the subject of Austin’s “admiration” was the dream of most of the women in Granger, and likely all of the females at the party, but not her.
“How about I say goodbye?” she fumed under his intense gaze. She wasn’t mad at him, but her reaction to him confused her. His eyes seemed to burn a hole through her long-held image of him as a business associate of her mother’s.
He dropped his hands to his massive chest. “Whoa, girl. I’ve been wanting to talk to you all night. You can’t leave yet.”
As his rich tenor swirled over her, Laney knew she would never tire of hearing his voice.
She touched her hair, styled into an elegant updo for the party. “Talk to me? About what?” she asked, trying not to sound flattered.
His eyes swaggered over her from head to toe, lingering here and there in places that caused her skin to warm.
“Your choice of attire for the gala,” he stated matter-of-factly.
She froze and her mouth dropped open. First, Austin unwittingly scared her and now he was openly judging her.
“Two minutes to midnight, folks!”
She ignored the singer’s gleeful warning and smoothed her hands along the side of her royal blue full-length gown. This wasn’t some department store knock-off, but rather it was custom designed for her. Not because she was a Broward and could afford it, but because she wanted to remain true to herself: One-of-a-kind. Unique. And right now, steaming mad.
Not sure if Austin was teasing or not, Laney met his gaze head on. “What’s wrong with it?” she blurted.
Austin shook his head. “It’s far too different than your usual t-shirt and jeans,” he stated, without a hint of a smile.
How dare he insult me, Laney thought. As a child, her brothers Wes and Jameson had teased her relentlessly about her tomboyish wardrobe and the memories came flooding back. Now that she was older, she knew they hadn’t meant to hurt her, but the pain was still there.
Just as she was about to tell Austin where he could stuff his unwanted opinions, he tilted his Stetson back slightly with the tip of his thumb.
“And on you, that gown is far too stunning to ignore.”
Was it the music or her heart that suddenly stopped as Austin stepped closer and draped his hands on her bare shoulders?
Austin seemed not to hear the drum roll or the guests chanting the countdown. He tilted her chin up and she stared at his lips, slightly bewildered.
She’d never been this close to Austin, never smelled his rough, masculine scent, never dreamed she’d want to be even closer.
Laney closed her eyes, suddenly aware that she wanted to grasp onto something she wasn’t even sure was going to happen, but a part of her hoped that it would. The part that foretold regret.
Austin cradled her face in his hands and lowered his mouth to hers.
“Happy New Year, Laney.”
Ignoring all sense and logic, amid the fireworks and distant gun shots, she slipped her hands around his waist and caved into the spell of his kiss. He was gentle at first, exploring the edges, feathering the center, his movements tugging at long-buried desire. The nerve points of her mouth jolted awake, as if from a deep sleep, reminding her of how much she’d missed the touch of a man’s lips. Now the feel of Austin’s lips were branded upon her senses forever.
Their embrace was like a blanket they huddled underneath against the clamor of noisemakers and strains of Auld Lang Syne. They owned the dark, the passion and the promise.
The old was made new. And when Austin lifted his mouth from hers, she felt more than sudden, unexpected desire. There was also the innate fear that she might never be kissed that way by Austin again, and the excitement that maybe she would.
She bit her lip, plumper now from his kisses.
He tipped his hat, bowing slightly and her heart fell when he started to walk away.
Her independent spirit willed her not to run to him, while at the same time her caring nature compelled her not to disturb the horses she loved so much.
She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Where are you going?” she called out.
He turned around and seemed unperturbed by what had just occurred between them. His world was unshaken, while hers tilted crazily on its axis.
Laney arched a brow. She knew Austin had a large estate that included two huge stables just outside of Dallas. But she couldn’t just let him leave, at least not until she found out why he had kissed her.
“Now? But what about the party? Aren’t you a sponsor?”
Austin nodded, and then chuckled. “I think the festivities will go on without me.”
He was moving away from her again, easing towards the door, away from something he had started.
She took a few hurried steps and managed to tap his shoulder, before quickly drawing back. It was hard and muscular under the black cloth of his tux.
“You probably shouldn’t be driving,” she advised. “It’s New Year’s Eve and it could be dangerous on the roads.”
Austin folded his arms and smiled. “Don’t worry about me, I’m staying close tonight.”
“Really? Where?” she asked, for once, not caring if she sounded overly curious.
Austin pushed open the service door and leaned against it. “A couple of years ago, I sold the owners of this estate two of my best thoroughbreds, both of which have made them a ton of money recently on the circuit. In exchange, there’s a little cottage on the grounds and they let me stay in it.”
“Wow. That’s really nice. Much better than a hotel.”
He nodded and there was a sudden gleam in his eye. “Yeah, it comes in handy those times when I’ve partied a little too hard. But I’ve been good tonight.”
Laney thought back to the lukewarm champagne and smiled. “Me too.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Well, in that case, would you like to see it?”
Although she didn’t know Austin very well, he wasn’t a total stranger. He was a friend of the Browards and highly-regarded by her mother, Gwen. Still she knew it was crazy to go with him. But something inside her wanted to go against the grain of her own personal conventions. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve.
She let her eyes travel across Austin’s broad shoulders. If she couldn’t be in his bed, she had the odd wish to be positioned under it, hidden from view. She wanted to listen to him breathe and feel the weight of his body dangerously close to hers.
She looked into Austin’s eyes and nodded her answer.
What would Mara and Robyn think? she thought.
They’d be jealous as all get out.
Laney hid a brief smile as they emerged into the chilly air. She hitched up her dress slightly and followed him down a wide dirt path.
The sky was clear and brilliant with stars and the temperature seemed to drop even more as they walked. By the time they arrived at the little home, which was located adjacent to a large pasture, she was shivering.
Laney rubbed her bare shoulders and read the hand-carved sign on the door. “Shepherd’s Cottage. Cute name. What does it mean?”
She stepped inside and Austin closed and locked the door behind them.
“This place was built a long time ago for people hired to mind the cattle. If they didn’t want to go home, they could sleep here. Since this ranch is now primarily used for breeding and raising horses, the owners use it as a guest house.”
She rubbed her bare shoulders again and shivered when Austin ran his hands down her arms. Her skin immediately goose-pimpled under his gentle touch while his reassuring smile warmed her in places his eyes couldn’t see.
“I’m sorry it’s so cold in here. It will only take me a minute to get the fireplace going.”
He shrugged out of his tuxedo jacket and helped her into it. “In the meantime, you can wear this.”
His jacket was way too big, but it was warm. She wrapped it around her body and inhaled the hint of spicy cologne that came with it.
“Make yourself comfortable.”
She nodded and took a few steps forward. As she looked around, she realized that the cottage had only one room.
On her left, fairly close to the door, there was a sitting area facing the fireplace, a galley kitchen with a breakfast nook, and a door she assumed led to the bathroom. The white-washed walls held various pen and ink drawings of landscapes, horses and mountains.
She pivoted to the right and spotted a small alcove with two steps leading up to an old-fashioned iron bed, covered in a thick, ivory, satin duvet.
Cozy was one word that came to mind.
The other caused her to bite her lip. She quickly turned back towards the living area. Austin was down on one knee, tending to the fire. The muscles beneath his shirt rippled under the white fabric as he arranged the kindling and the logs. Her breath caught in her throat as he struck a match and set the wood aflame.
But it wasn’t until Austin stood up, grasped his Stetson with one hand, and placed it on a peg by the front door in one fell swoop, that she lost it. To her, that simple gesture meant that he was home, and just for tonight, she was right here with him.
“Why did you kiss me?” she blurted.
“I don’t know,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. “Why did you kiss me back?”
Laney opened her mouth, as if an explanation would simply form without any thought. Kissing Austin back wasn’t that simple. Neither was the reason.
She shrugged, a little too hard, and his tux jacket fell to the floor.
“I think we both need to find out,” he said, approaching her. “Don’t you?”
His low voice, a rich undercurrent to the pop and hiss of the kindling, made her knees shake.
A moment later, Laney felt herself nod, so intrigued by him that she found herself holding her breath as he unbuttoned his shirt.
He shed it quickly, not saying a word, not inviting her to look away. Somehow he knew that her eyes had been opened to something that needed to be explored.
The white t-shirt he wore cloaked those muscles that she knew were always there, but could never touch. When he stood in front of her, so tantalizing close, she couldn’t help herself. She reached out and ran a finger down the middle of his abdomen. The ridges there were tight and hard, yet pulsed with barely contained energy.
He groaned and his hands grasped her waist as he pulled her against him. At once, she pressed her lips firmly against his neck and froze, plying his salty skin with her tongue, while his fingers deftly manipulated the zipper of her evening gown. It slid to the floor and Austin stepped back, yet not so far that she couldn’t see the well of desire in his dark eyes as they swept over her lace bra and panties.
The answers they sought lay in the crackle of wood and the gentle hush of their breathing, yet for a moment, neither moved.
Austin took a step back, hesitating now, but Laney pulled him back, not willing to let him go.
For reasons she didn’t fully comprehend, she needed to know him. She needed to feel this. His hard length, still clothed, rolling against her bare stomach. She weaved her body against him until he grunted and threaded his fingers in her long hair. He kissed her deeply. His tongue on a mission with no map. She was his guide, opening herself to him, allowing him to drink of her, knowing innately that he would never be satisfied, wanting him to keep on needing.
His mouth worked down her neck, his fingers twisting in her bra straps, kneading her shoulders, unhooking her bra. That male energy pulsed tight against her, making her yearn to take him in her mouth, to feel that energy spread through her body.
He lifted his lips and his hands spanned her bare back, drawing her even closer to him, and her nipples rubbed against his bare chest.
Laney moaned and Austin lifted her up in his arms. She allowed herself to be carried by him, not fighting the primal urge to be dominated by this man.
She wanted this.
Although they couldn’t voice it to each other, deep down they had a common goal: to discover and to forget.
Austin laid her gently on the bed and she watched with wide eyes as he unzipped his trousers. Eased off his briefs. At the sight of him, she gasped. The length, wide as river; smooth as glass on top, hard as a rock underneath, power coursing through unbidden. Her mouth began to water and she reached for him. Austin lay upon her, his smile almost imperceptible, his body elongated and seemed to never end. In the firelight, his skin was dark bronze, moist with sweat, firm with muscle. She trailed her fingers down his back and over his round buttocks and spread her legs in anticipation.
Their lips ground together again, tongues darting and playing, as they both sought to prolong their desire and their time together.
Austin’s fingers tweaked her one of her nipples and she writhed beneath him, wanting more of his touch and more of him.
Sensing her need, he ended the kiss, cupped her breasts and lapped at her large nipples until they were hard. She looked down at the wet, swollen peaks and bit her bottom lip, as Austin pursed his lips and gently blew them dry.
Moving downward, Austin tongued her belly button, making her laugh. Her giggles quickly turned into gasps as he kissed her inner thighs, causing her muscles to quiver uncontrollably.
Laney moaned as his tongue hungrily darted across her skin, swirled briefly into her wet core, and out again, landing firmly on her ultra-sensitive pearl. Like a marionette on an invisible string, his gentle lips controlled her, beckoning her to buck. It only took a few moments and when she did, the satin sheets rolled underneath them. She cried out, fisting and clutching at the duvet, now a stage, barely able to contain her ecstatic agony.
After protecting them, Austin laid upon her once more, grunting low, murmuring softly in her ear. As he slowly, so slowly, inserted his length into her, she squeezed her eyes shut, her mouth going slack.
Laney opened her eyes and Austin stilled above her, breathing heavily, his arms stock-straight, palms flat against the mattress. The firewood shifted with a loud hiss, but neither of them flinched. His dark eyes gazed into hers and she bit her lip again at what she saw in them. No more a calm river, but a whirlpool of lust.
He began to move inside her so rapidly that she brought her hands to his massive shoulders, afraid she would fall off the bed. She tried to palm them, but gave up and settled on his shoulder blades. When she found a spot, she held on, like a mountain climber grasping sheer, slick rock, never letting go, never looking down, for fear of dying.
Her hair fell down around her face and she thrashed her head from side to side, moaning. She opened her legs wider, so Austin could climb higher, bore deeper.
He impaled her as his own, over one erotic threshold and then another, scaling and moving together, until she cried out again, desperate for more.
The freedom Austin was giving her, those undulating waves that were no match against fear, taking her outside of herself as their mutual pleasure rose to almost unbearable heights.
“Don’t hold back, Laney,” he urged, breathing hard. He found her lips and groaned. “Because I can’t.”
His neck corded as he slammed into her one last time and lifted his face to the sky. His chin jutting forth, eyes squeezed shut, as he froze in place.
Laney opened and closed her legs around his waist, and then finally locked them around his slick body. She moved her hips greedily to claim every drop that poured forth.
So forbidden, so wanton, so unbelievably good.
The fire continued to crackle, and the beads of sweat that rolled from their bodies did not dampen their desire. No longer uncertain and not wanting to waste another moment, Laney and Austin began to eagerly explore each other again. Neither one considered, nor cared, what the new year would bring.
© 2012-2016 Harmony Evans – All Rights Reserved.