Something To Talk About

Something To Talk About

Something To Talk About now available from The Wild Rose Press

Born-to-be-bland meets born-to-be-wild...

Annabelle Leahey is ready to be bad. Fed up with quilting bees and bridge clubs, Ann has to change or grow old alone. But going from bashful to bold won’t be easy—especially since thong underwear is her idea of risqué. So Ann needs a guide, and rancher Mitchell Black is the perfect candidate.

The last thing Mitchell needs is more trouble. He hasn’t lived down his bad boy days yet and he has no intention of resurrecting them now. But when Ann asks for his help, he can’t refuse. Especially since the preacher’s daughter has suddenly become a fireball of temptation.

Mitchell’s determined to keep his role in Ann’s research hands-off, but Ann has plans of her own. She intends to show Mitchell what’s he’s missing—and that being bad with the right person can be o-o-o-oh so good.

Available at:  The Wild Rose Press    |      Barnes and Noble      |    Amazon    |     Kobo     |    Apple iBooks

***

EXCERPT

Mitchell glared at the people at the table next to them until they at least pretended to return to their meal. He turned back to Ann. “Shouldn’t you be at the shop?”

“I’ve got time.” She leaned closer, fiddling with a tendril of hair at her nape.

The hair he’d thought was scraped back in a bun was actually a loose twist that left delicate wisps at her nape and temples. It gave her a fresh, just-outof-bed-after-amazing-sex look that he felt in his front pocket. Ah, hell. He reached for his wallet. “I’ll walk you.”

She didn’t budge. “I realized you’re absolutely right.”

Caution mixed with relief to form an uneasy frown. “I am?”

“Absolutely. So I’ve decided exactly what I want to learn.” Ann sat tall and regal in her chair. “And I want you to teach me.”

Full-fledged need buried itself in Mitchell’s stomach and corkscrewed straight through his spine, preventing him from standing.

Educate Ann? His thoughts took a distinct, Xrated turn. Lots of hands-on work and one-on-one experimentation. Judging by her reaction last night, she had no concept of what sensuality encompassed. Had never experienced the erotic.

Homework took on a whole new meaning. Erogenous zones. Seduction techniques. Touches and teases. And kisses. Lots of kisses. The syllabus was limitless, and extra credit never sounded so good.

“Me,” Mitchell managed to choke out, the word strangled.

Ann nodded, a quick jerk of her head that threatened to tumble that mane of hair. “I need you, Mitchell.” She covered his hand. “I need you to show me how to be Bad.”

 


 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Annabelle Leahey was ready to be bad. Not sneak-a-cigarette-behind-the-garage, skinny-dip-in-Old-Man-Philsner’s-pond misbehaving, but an all out, turn a few heads, raise a few brows, Bad.

In a town like River Falls, Montana—whose population barely tipped 1,012 if you included Gilda, the sheriff’s bloodhound—that wouldn’t be easy. Good grief, the local boutique didn’t even carry thong underwear. How could a girl go from sweet to sinful without silk panties?

Ann had to do something. At twenty-four, she was the youngest member of the quilting bee, the best apple pie baker at the county fair three years running, and the ringer in the weekly bridge club. Her job at the local bookstore did nothing to ease her spinster image. Add to it that her father had been the town’s preacher until his death last year, and you had all the ingredients for a successful old maid.

“I don’t want you to end up like me, Ann,” her boss and friend, Edith, warned, “letting sixty years pass by before you take a risk. You’re not going to live a life of regret. Not if I can help it.”

True to her word, Edith had delivered the ultimatum a week ago before leaving for Italy. If Ann got off her namby-pamby butt and started living the life she always talked about, Edith would turn the bookstore over to her. If she didn’t, Edith would sell to a real estate developer interested in building a one-stop shopping complex called Mega-Mart. Not only would Ann lose the shop she’d helped build, but River Falls would be saddled with an economic monster that would throw the small town into a financial tailspin.

The solution was obvious. Ann needed to find the courage to venture out and try all the things she always talked about. With only two weeks to do it, Rusty’s Bar looked like a good place to start.

Though technically not in River Falls, the bar, with its sagging roof and dingy windows, was the nearest thing to a local hangout within thirty miles. It was a popular spot with cowboys and ranchers looking for a few laughs and cold drinks after a hard day.

Ann had never been to the bar before. Now, standing in the dark parking lot as neon signs touted cold beer and air conditioning, it felt wrong to be here. Maybe it was the height of her heels or the flutter of her flouncy, so-short-even-Ally-McBeal wouldn’t-wear-it scarlet skirt against her thighs, or the way her black silk blouse rippled across her bare nipples when she’d never gone bra-less in public before. Whatever it was, she felt strangely decadent.

Her tummy took a spinning dip, and Ann rested her hand against it. Nervous was good. Excited was good. The strange feeling she was about to embark on a mission no one would understand was even better.

“Bad is good,” Ann said, reciting Edith’s favorite mantra. She swept an unsteady hand through her blonde hair. “Bad is bold and confident.”

By the time she reached the door, she almost believed it.

Anticipation made her stomach tilt-a-whirl again. Now or never. Goodbye, sugar and spice. Hello-o-o, trouble.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped inside. The heavy door swung shut behind her. The music hit her first, a steady country twang accompanied by electric slide guitars and a bass that boomed from the jukebox and up through the worn wooden floor. The smell came next, not that of stale beer and old cigarettes, but burgers and onions with an underlying hint of coffee.

A black, tin panel ceiling guided her away from the hot August night and further into the bar. Ceiling fans whirled above the crowd, stirring the air with the constant thrum of conversation, catching laughter before scattering it in splashes throughout the room.

The bar itself was a long expanse of oak with a brass foot rail. Rows of bottles behind it showcased the bar’s alcohol assortment, while the neon signs above it advertised the handful of beer brands kept on tap. Five pulls and an early 1900s cash register flanked stainless steel sinks and matching prep counter.

Ann made her way through the crowd of tables toward the bar. She’d never seen so many people in one place. True to Montana’s status quo, there were more men than women, at least three to one, with most of them clustered around the pool tables and electronic dartboards in the back.

Gripping her black purse, Ann continued forward, her high heels shortening her step. The barstool proved a challenge all its own, but she managed it with a fair amount of grace.

As she crossed her legs, the bartender, a large oxen man with a square jaw and a shock of graying hair drawn back into a ponytail, offered her a smile. “What can I get you?” he asked.

Pretty sure a Shirley Temple ranked a negative on the wild side, Ann floundered for a drink that sounded like something a sexy, vibrant woman would order.

A lanky man with a face straight off an aftershave billboard saved her from answering. Elbow on the bar, he braced one booted foot against the brass rail and tossed the bartender a wink, his thin lips curling into a cool smile designed to charm.

“I’m amazed you have to ask, Rusty.” His gaze traveled over her, stalling low at the neckline of Ann’s blouse before dropping to her legs. He leaned closer, his smile predatory. “It’s clear to me she’s a Lil’ Bit of Honey.”

****

She sauntered at the speed of sex.

From the moment she sashayed into the room, she grabbed his attention. Mitchell Black couldn’t take his eyes off her. It wasn’t the look-at-me clothes. A dozen short-skirted women tottered around the room on too-high heels. Rather, her provocative movements mesmerized him. Not too fast, not too slow, her hips swung from side to side like a pendulum. She was all woman and clearly knew the power of her femininity.

The little shimmy her backside performed as she strolled across the room said she had all night to cross from door to counter, leaving him to wonder if she took other activities as leisurely.

Mitchell caught the twinkle in her eye, the “I’ve got a secret” smile that tipped the corners of her full mouth before she turned away. His hands tightened around his beer bottle as she slid onto the barstool. Her skirt molded the graceful curve of her bottom, and the hem rose high to showcase one trim thigh.

When she crossed those long, glorious legs, Mitchell found himself staring at her shoes. Blood red to match the skirt, they weren’t just footwear, they were sexual tools designed to make a man sweat.

From his table in the corner, Mitchell dragged his gaze upward, drinking in the line of her calves, the hourglass dip of her waist, and the high thrust of her breasts against black-as-sin silk. Waves of flaxen-colored hair flowed down her back, beckoning him to bury his hands in it and clench it tight as he buried his face against the curve of her throat.

For a man who hadn’t dated much since his parents’ death twelve years ago, Mitchell was sure acting like a wolf. His response took him by surprise. Women didn’t rank high on his priority list. It was a part of his life he’d set aside to raise his two younger brothers and run the family buffalo ranch.

Sometimes though, like tonight when his brothers went out and the house turned quiet, as it so often did now that the two younger men were looking for places of their own, he took a drive or went for a drink at a local bar. Even then a beer was his only company. Not a social animal, he preferred the tight circle of his family to parties. A good thing since no one in River Falls passed up the chance to tell stories of his reckless youth. They considered the tales entertainment. He saw them as embarrassments. Disappointments his parents suffered through. Tired of apologizing for his past, he simply found it easier to keep his distance.

Perhaps that was why the impulse to touch this woman surprised him. Beer in hand, Mitchell paused. When was the last time he noticed a female as a woman? The more he thought about it, the further back he had to flip in his mental calendar.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one to notice the blonde’s arrival. A cowboy at one of the pool tables raked his fingers through his hair and then swaggered toward the bar. He struck a cocky stance and took his first swing at a come-on.

Mitchell gave him twenty seconds before the goddess in Satan’s heels dismissed him. Instead, she laughed as the bartender mixed her drink, some funky concoction involving liberal amounts of dark rum, honey, and lemon in a highball glass.

As the pair chatted, Mitchell got a nice long look at her delicate profile, gentle jawline, and pouty mouth. When she turned to look his way, her gaze skipping over the room without coming to rest on him, Mitchell got a wrecking ball of reality to his gut that snapped him upright in his chair. His beer bottle hit the tabletop with a clack. Holy hell. The woman who’d inspired his full-blown lust, the one he’d mentally stripped naked and had sex with in six different positions on his bedroom floor, was little Annabelle Leahey.

Guilt overrode desire. Wasn’t there a commandment making that a trespass? Thou shall not lust after the preacher’s daughter?

Stunned, Mitchell drank in Ann’s new appearance. Little Annabelle, the quiet bookstore clerk—the girl who’d lost her mother to a drunk driver when she was fourteen, who’d taken over care of their house and nursed her father during his cancer until his death a year ago—no longer existed. In her place was…Mitchell blew out a breath as he studied her legs. Damn. He hadn’t known she even owned a skirt that short.

What the hell was she doing here anyway? Most of the women who frequented Rusty’s on nights like these were all looking for one thing—male companionship of the one-night variety—and they knew how to advertise it. Ann, on the other hand, was a woman every man in River Falls knew came with only one warning label—Caution: Strings Attached!

But Rusty’s wasn’t River Falls. Most of the men here didn’t know her. Didn’t she realize the trouble she could get into coming here alone? Mitchell certainly did. He’d spent his youth on a mission to find trouble like that, or if it wasn’t there, create it himself.

Apparently unaware of her identity, the smarmy cowboy piled on the charm. Ann sipped her drink and laughed at something he said. He flashed a bright smile, testing the waters by touching her hand, her arm, finally her shoulder. When he settled that hand on her knee, she removed it and then gave the hem of her skirt a brisk tug.

Mitchell tapped his fingers against the bottle. His eyes cut back to Ann. The responsible thing would be to walk over there, hustle her little fanny out the door, and deliver her safely to her porch, before some randy drunk took her up on the offer her sweet little body was broadcasting like a homing beacon.

Too late. The cowboy’s happy hand made its return. This time the palm landed on Ann’s knee before voyaging boldly upward. Mitchell’s eyes narrowed. Ann took another gulp of her drink, emptying the glass like a soda, and he thought he detected a tremor in her hand. Her mouth formed the one word he’d been waiting for. No.

The cowboy moved closer anyway. His thigh brushed hers. His hand slid higher to toy with the hem of her skirt, brushing it back and forth against her flesh.

The effect was amazing. Ann shrank into herself, suddenly looking very young, very vulnerable, and more than a just a little scared. That look raised every protective instinct Mitchell had learned as a substitute parent.

With his brothers, the solution was easy—eye contact and a faint nod of permission before stepping aside to let Dillon or Justin choose a course of action. With Ann, the situation was more complicated. It was none of his business why she came to Rusty’s. She wasn’t his problem. Her father, however, had been good to the Black family after the car accident that claimed their parents’ lives. And Ann…Mitchell scrubbed his hand over his mouth. Ann had grown up alongside Dillon and hung around the ranch so often as a kid that Mitchell couldn’t help but feel some sense of responsibility for her.

Logic warned that she was a woman alone and in trouble. A sheltered kid, who’d had way too many burdens thrust on her at too young an age, she was obviously unnerved by the clown’s attempt at a pickup. Mitchell lingered on her curves and reluctantly admitted she was also an adult. It was her prerogative to stroll into a bar on a Friday night and let some guy hit on her. Besides, if he stepped in now, she might get the wrong idea about his motives as well.

Not taking the hint, the cowboy’s hand returned, this time settling high on her thigh. Despite her sexy pretense, Ann looked frightened.

Mitchell squinted. His jaw tightened. The mental countdown to intervention began.

A few years ago he could have been that cowboy. Hell, in certain bars, his legend still survived. Yet even in his rowdiest days he knew how to accept a no and back off. It was a simple matter of respect.

When his internal timer hit ten and the cowboy still hadn’t relented, Mitchell set his drink down and pushed away from the table. Habit had him replacing his black cowboy hat, angling it low over one eye before he strode across the room.

As he approached, Ann caught the man’s wandering hand. “Really,” she said, her voice firm despite a faint tremor, “thank you, I’m flattered, but I’m not interested.”

The cowboy touched her hair, making her flinch. “Now darlin’,” he drawled, “don’t be like that. I’m just talking about a little fun. You look like a woman who likes to have fun.”

“Look—”

“How about a game of pool?” He followed the curve of her jaw with the tip of his finger. “I can show you how to handle a stick. I bet you already know proper stroke technique, don’t you, honey.”

His finger dipped down the length of her throat toward the swell of her breasts. Ann gasped, her eyes wide, as she started to protest. Mitchell got there first.

Catching the cowboy’s thin wrist, Mitchell twisted, bringing the man’s arm up and away from Ann’s body. He used the hold to back the man off a step and insert himself between the two. He added enough pressure to strain the other man’s tendons. Enough to get his attention.

“The lady,” Mitchell growled, “said no.”

****

 Oh, sweet symphony. When Ann sent up a prayer for help, Mitchell Black was the last person she thought would answer. But one look at the denim jacket stretched across wide shoulders and black hair worn long enough to fall over the collar, she knew it couldn’t be anyone else.

She’d spent years watching those shoulders, wondering when the six-foot rancher would notice she was no longer an awkward little girl full of knees and elbows. He never had, and lacking the nerve to tell him how she felt, Ann resigned herself to admiring from afar.

Right now, however, part of her wanted to throw her arms around him and thank him. The other part wanted to smack him over the head and tell him she was quite capable of handling the situation herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate his interference. She did. But she didn’t need to be rescued. A confident woman should be able to manage such situations on her own. But when the cowboy ignored Mitchell’s warning and stepped closer, Ann knew she was in way over her head. Bad was bold, not reckless.

“Why don’t you mind your own business?” the cowboy demanded. “This is a private conversation between me and the lady.”

Mitchell touched Ann’s shoulder, his large palm nearly engulfing the curve. His eyes, the color of pine-tree-topped hills shrouded by fog, met hers. Like so many other times he’d looked at her, tenderness shone there, kicking her heart into hyperdrive.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Though his hands were work-hard and calloused, the gentleness of his touch surprised her. His rugged hand stroked the small of her back in an absent caress. The warmth of his palm radiated through the silk.

Ann forced herself to speak despite the hopscotch of her heart. “I’m fine. Really.” She glanced around to find people watching. Heat bloomed across her cheeks. “This isn’t necessary.”

Mitchell’s dark brows knotted together.

“There. See?” The cowboy smirked. “She’s great. So back off, Grandpa.”

Ann’s jaw dropped. “Grandpa!”

Bold, he poked Mitchell in the arm. “I got here first.”

Mitchell looked down as the cowboy jabbed him. His jaw muscle ticked.

The cowboy shoved him again. “Go back to your table and sit down. Mind your own business.”

His table?

“Oh, no,” Ann moaned. Mortified, she covered her eyes with her hand. She peeked at Mitchell between her fingers. “How long have you been here?”

A corner of Mitchell’s mouth kicked up as he brushed the cowboy’s hand aside when the other man nudged him again. The gesture was the impatient flick of a horse’s tail to a fly. “Long enough.” He raised a brow. “Did you drive?”

“I took a cab.”

His nod was succinct. “Good. Get your purse. I’m taking you home.”

To be sent home like a child caught out after curfew? She didn’t think so. Determination straightened her spine and shoulders. “No.”

His brows shot straight up. “What?”

“I’m not going anywhere, and I am not going home.”

“The hell you aren’t.” When the cowboy prodded him again, Mitchell swore and stabbed a finger at him. “You. Back off.”

The cowboy did a little Ali dance, his head bobbing from side to side. “Come on, old man, you wanna go?” He crooked a finger at him. “You and me.”

Mitchell reached for her elbow. “We’re leaving.”

Ann angled her chin upward. “Maybe I’m not ready to go.”

Something flashed in the gray depths of his eyes. Surprise? Annoyance? Ann couldn’t tell. The flecks of olive green in his irises glowed like tiny embers. Hell on wheels, her father had dubbed the eldest Black son. As he gazed down at her, deviltry in his gaze, she understood why.

“You heard the lady.” The cowboy shoved Mitchell’s shoulder and did his little jig again. “Get lost before I make you.”

Rare amusement flickered over Mitchell’s mouth. It was the closest Ann had seen him come to a smile in years.

Mitchell nudged his hat brim up. “Nobody’s talking to you, pal. She told you no. So go back to your game and call it a night.”

“Yeah?”

Mitchell straightened, his shoulders squared, the muscles there rippling. Feet braced apart, hands fisted at his sides, he radiated one hundred percent brute force. “Yeah.”

This was not how she’d wanted the night to turn out. Unless she put a stop to this right now, someone was going to get hurt. Grabbing her purse from the counter, Ann slid off the barstool, surprised when her legs rubberized beneath her. She caught the back of Mitchell’s jacket to steady herself with one hand as she pushed her hair from her face with the other. Her forehead felt hot, as if someone had turned on the heat instead of the air conditioning. Funny, considering it was August.

Ann gave her head a brisk shake to clear the haze. “All right. You win. Let’s go.”

When she teetered into him again, Mitchell frowned over his shoulder at her. This time she couldn’t mistake his look of astonishment. “Are you drunk?”

She swayed on her high heels. “Of course not. I only had one drink.”

That fleeting smile came back. Shaking his head, Mitchell caught her hand. “Let’s get you home.”

He turned and walked straight into the cowboy’s fist. The cheap shot snapped Mitchell’s head to the side and sent him stumbling. Ann squeaked as the cowboy went after him, landing two vicious blows and a few kicks to his ribs. The force of the assault toppled him. Mitchell’s head barely missed the corner of a table as he fell. He landed face down on the floor hard enough to make the crushed peanut shells and discarded cigarette butts jump.

Ann—meek, timid Annabelle Leahey, who never raised her voice and never lost her temper—forgot all about being bad or bold or brave and leapt into the fray. She went after the cowboy with the only weapon she had—her purse—smacking him repeatedly in the head as the shocked crowd around them parted.

The whumping bass of the music seemed to reiterate every smack of her purse against the cowboy’s head, and the screech of the guitar became lost in the hoots of the crowd as they cheered her on. Ann was drawing her arm back to deliver another blow when the bartender broke through the crowd.

He shouldered his way around Ann, pushing her back with a simple sweep of his arm. He clamped his hands around the cowboy’s scruff, practically lifting him off his feet as he dragged him toward the back office.

With a low sound of distress, Ann dropped to her knees next to Mitchell. She smoothed his thick black hair from his forehead, the silky strands tickling her palm.

Eyes closed, stern face relaxed, he looked almost peaceful except for the deep lines that time had engraved between his brows and at the corners of his mouth.

Holy horse feathers, the man was a mountain range! Hard angles, an unforgiving face, and a faint wildness that nothing could tame.

Ann hesitated before patting his cheek. A day’s worth of stubble shadowed his jaw, warm and rough against her hand. “Mitchell, can you hear me?”

The mountain grumbled. Rumbled. Not a pleasant man under normal circumstance, Mitchell Black barely uttered a growling, “Morning,” when passed on the sidewalk. Now, with a knot forming on his forehead and a bruise darkening his jaw, he looked downright dangerous.

He rolled onto his back to stare up at her. A deep scowl furrowed his brow. “You all right?” he asked.

His concern sent an unexpected tingle of warmth through her. Hand on his chest, Ann felt the slow, heavy pulse of his heart engrave itself against her palm. “I’m not the one that got hit.” She caught his elbow to steady him as he struggled to his feet.

“Are you hurt?”

Groaning, he sank down on a knee as he braced a hand on a nearby table. The sudden shift nearly pulled Ann off her feet and she staggered into him. She might as well have collapsed into a slab of marble.

Mitchell didn’t budge under her unexpected weight. He simply gripped her waist, turned her, and sat her on his thigh to prevent her from falling.

Good heavens, the last time she sat on a man’s lap she’d been nine. An aging, overweight department store Santa who reeked of booze and cigarettes. Mitchell, however, was the opposite—hard and lean and smelling of nothing but woods and earth—a fact Ann found herself acutely aware of as his thigh tightened beneath her bottom.

The worn fabric of his jeans caressed the sensitive flesh of her thighs, and Ann glanced down. With her skirt bunched up, her black french-cut panties were clearly visible and she blushed as she struggled to pull the material down.

As she wiggled, Mitchell went stock-still. Muttering, he planted one hand in the lower curve of her back, reached across her legs, and jerked the skirt into place. His knuckles grazed her knee, rolling a ribbon of sensation between her thighs where it landed in a quivering coil.

Ann didn’t have to look to know Mitchell was staring. His ragged breath fluttered hot and fast against the side of her throat as his palm molded her knee. Every muscle and nerve jolted at the contact. The sudden impulse to part her legs, to feel his hand there, shocked her.

Mitchell’s palm drifted up her spine, rippling the black silk against her flesh. The unexpected heat, the slow drag of her blouse, radiated to her toes. Ann’s breath hitched. Her nipples tightened. Her knees squeezed together. Mitchell’s long, blunt tipped fingers stalled between her shoulder blades before he bit off a curse that turned her cheeks crimson. Abruptly Ann found herself on her feet.

“Where the hell’s my hat?” he snapped, combing his fingers through his hair.

The black hat lay on the floor near the bar. They both spotted it and reached for the crushed brim at the same time. Mitchell’s gaze dropped from hers to cruise over the bridge of her nose to her mouth. Fascinated Ann watched the olive flecks in his gray eyes smolder.

His mouth tightened an instant before he jerked upright and slapped his hat against his thigh to dust it off. Wedging it on his head, Mitchell cocked the brim before he took hold of her arm and dragged her toward the exit.

Ann, who barely reached his chin, struggled to keep up with his long stride. “W-where are we going?”

“Home, so you can’t do any more damage.”

“Me? No one asked you to butt in!”

Mitchell rounded on her, forcing her to draw up short or plow straight into him. “You want me to apologize for defending you?”

“Maybe I didn’t want defending. Did you ever think of that?”

“You might have mentioned that before I got trampled.”

Concern replaced anger and Ann touched the bruised corner of his mouth, wincing when he flinched. Her tone softened to match her touch. “I’m sorry I got you into this.” She raised curious eyes to his. “Does it hurt?”

Mitchell’s breath burst warm and moist against her fingertips before he snagged her wrist. He searched her eyes for a moment before stepping back.

“Come on,” he said, giving her hand a small tug. “I’m getting you out of here before you get any more bad ideas.”

 

© Julie Harrington and The Wild Rose Press 2012

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