Book 1 in the Sweet Shoppe Series
Linda Wheeler’s life is not going how she planned it. She left her dusty little Texas hometown years ago for the bright lights of Dallas years ago but now she is back—and not by choice. She’s flat broke and without a job. Worse, she is back in that little town she never wanted to see again and having to work at the dude ranch she co owns with her high school crush, Nicodemus McCabe.
Nic had always thought of Linda as his little sister. That is until she hit eighteen. Then, she became an obsession he had to ignore. Her father had been his savior and Nic understood his place. Now that she was back, resisting her is getting more difficult by the minute.
After a trip to The Sweet Shoppe, shared erotic dreams make it even harder for both of them to resist the temptation. But will they be able to ignore their fears and take a chance on love?
Book 1 in the Sweet Shoppe Series
She had arrived in hell.
Linda Wheeler blinked against the Texas sun and sighed. Only it wasn’t truly hell, just her personal hell. And that was much worse than eternity spent with the Devil himself.
A drop of sweat dribbled down her back; her mouth felt as dry as sandpaper. She looked at the time and realized that showing up at the ranch at dinnertime was probably not the greatest timing, but she didn’t give a damn. Life had handed her a shit sundae and she didn’t give a damn what was going on. She just wanted to burrow under her old bed and pretend life wasn’t so God-awful.
Three days ago, she’d been happy. Somewhat happy. Okay, not that happy, but still happier than she’d ever be at the McCabe and Wheeler Dude Ranch. Living in Dallas had been a dream of hers since her teens, and she’d achieved it for the last fifteen years. Now, she was back in hell. Other people might call it West Texas. Of course, most of those people had spent their lives there and they didn’t know any better. They seemed to thrive in a place filled
She ground her teeth as she turned onto the dirt road that led to the ranch house. Red Texas dust billowed out around the car, making her choke. If Charles hadn’t taken off with the Honda, she would have been able to wind up the windows and turn on the A/C. And if he hadn’t cleared out their bank account, sold her jewelry, and left her nothing but an empty apartment and a Dear Jane email … He’d been nice enough to leave her his piece-of-shit car.
The ranch house came into view, and her head started to pound. It looked exactly the same as she remembered it. White with dark blue trim, the house had been the center of her world at one time. It had meant home. The wraparound porch was filled with rocking chairs. Light poured out of the windows, creating a welcome invitation to any weary traveler. She could even smell the pit barbecue in the back of the house. Six in the evening in the summer, like clockwork.
Linda’s stomach roiled, and she swallowed down her panic. This was only temporary. She’d be back on the road as soon as Nic agreed to buy out her part of the ranch. She was sure he’d agree, but since Charles had cancelled her cell phone account, reaching Nic had been impossible. With the first of the month looming, and no way to pay the rent since she’d gotten fired, Linda had decided to pack up the junk pile and head to the ranch.
A multitude of pickups were parked out in front of the house. Most of them were ranch trucks. She could tell by the dents, the scratches, the later models. A few looked new. There was a minivan or two, telling her the ranch had customers.
After parking her car, she drew in a deep breath and tried her best to blink away the tears in her eyes. She would not fall apart. Amos Wheeler hadn’t raised a fluffball. She’d make it through this and come out ahead. She should have indulged in the fudge she’d been craving since she’d stopped in Sullivan at the Sweet Shoppe. Licking her lips, she opened the car door and stepped out of the car. Somehow, her left foot got tangled in the seat belt, and, as she struggled, she found herself falling forward, out of the car and into the dirt. She landed with an oomph.
Sighing, she lifted herself to her hands and knees just in time to see a pair of cowboy boots come into view. Looking up, she squinted against the bright sun as she tried to discern who was standing in front of her.
“Well, if it isn’t little Linda Wheeler. I think the last time I saw you was after your father’s funeral two years ago.”
She fell back and plopped down hard on her rear end in the dirt. Nicodemus McCabe squatted in front of her, a nasty smile curving his lips. He pushed his cowboy hat back with his thumb and looked down at her. There was nothing welcoming in his gaze. Cold, hard, and dark, the look in his eyes sent a shiver down her spine. Not in fear, but, as usual, from some sort of sick attraction she could never figure out.
“Let me see if I can remember what you said at the time. Oh, yeah. You would rather take a trip to hell and back before setting foot on this ranch again.” He placed a hand beside her head on the car door and leaned forward. The scent of leather and Nic filled her senses, and her head spun. “So, Linda. How was hell?”
Nic stared down at Linda Wheeler and wondered just what the hell she was doing at the ranch, sitting in the red dirt. He glanced at her car—a beat-up sedan that was on its last axles—and then back at her. She must be at the end of her rope to return to the ranch. From the looks of things, the rope had been unraveling for a while. And he hated it. As much as he thought he would enjoy her downfall, he didn’t like seeing her at the bottom.
She pursed her lips, like he knew she did when she was mad. “You tell me. Since you revel in living in hell and being the gatekeeper of the inmates, I figure you know better than I.”
He had to hand it to her. Her clothes looked liked she’d slept in them, her hair was a mess, and the dark smudges beneath her eyes told him she’d been losing sleep. And she could still dish it out. One tough woman. Even though she looked like she’d been put through the wringer, she smelled as if she’d just left one of those fancy-ass spas she liked to go to. All lavender and spice. When he found himself leaning closer, enjoying the scent, he pulled back and stood up.
“Whatcha doing here, Wheeler?” He couldn’t help the sarcastic tone, but he did offer her a hand up.
She glanced up at his face and then his hand. Her green gaze hardened; then she grabbed hold of the opened car door and pulled herself up. The woman always had to take care of herself.
“I’m here to discuss the ranch, McCabe.”
Strange. And disturbing. Linda never wanted to discuss the ranch. “Got your check last month, didn’t ya?”
She frowned and crossed her arms beneath her breasts. He tried to concentrate on getting information, but it was hard with her standing there like that. Linda had never been what anyone would call top-heavy. She was more of a pear shape. But he’d bet her breasts were gorgeous. With her complexion, he was almost sure she’d have the prettiest pink nipples … Immediately, heat shot straight to his dick. No need to be fantasizing about a woman he would never have. He shook his head and lifted his gaze to meet hers.
“No, I didn’t get the check, but that’s not what I want to discuss.”
“Now, hold on a minute. I sent you a check last month, quarterly income.”
She sighed and leaned against her car. “I’m not saying you didn’t.”
He studied her. Her shoulders were sagging—her whole demeanor struck him as defeated. “You’re not making sense, as usual.”
She closed her eyes and rubbed her temple. “Nic, do you think we can have a chat after I get cleaned up and changed? I’m dying of thirst, I haven’t eaten anything but a SNicers all day long, and all I really want to do is sink into a bubble bath.”
He really wanted to push her, piss her off. If she got irritated, she might leave. Having her this close made his skin itch from the inside out. But he could tell something was wrong. They’d both lost their fathers and had little family on either side. They were almost like brother and sister.
Okay, not brother and sister. That was sick. Because she had been the subject of many a teenage fantasy while they’d been in high school.
“Tell ya what. Your father’s room is always open.”
Her eyes shot open. “You don’t rent it out?”
He hated the warmness in her gaze, especially the way it made him feel. “Of course not. Wouldn’t make any sense to rent out a master suite when these people are paying top dollar to rough it for a week.”
Her lips turned down, but she didn’t say anything. Nic didn’t need her admiration, her hero worship. He’d had enough of that while they were growing up.
“I’ll clean up and then meet you in the parlor.”
He nodded curtly, but didn’t say anything. The less said, the better. Linda turned to lean back into her car. The material of her skirt hiked up a few inches and stretched across her ass. When he found himself reaching to swat her, he stepped back once … twice. Linda Wheeler was a woman with a body to adore, but a mouth and an attitude that made him want to throttle her.
When she finally pulled herself out of the car, all she held was a little white paper bag with The Sweet Shoppe written on it in gold letters. She straightened, then proceeded to walk past him.
“My bag is in the back seat.”
Before she could step past him, he grabbed her arm. Again, the scent of her perfume tickled his senses. Nic forced himself not to take a deep breath. He could feel the warmth of her body through her shirt. His body’s reaction was instant and annoying. More annoying was that when she narrowed her eyes and looked up at him, it aroused him more.
“Listen, Ms. Wheeler. This isn’t a resort, and everyone does for themselves here. I don’t take orders, and I don’t take requests.”
Less than gentle, he released her arm and turned on his heel, leaving her behind him. The faster she got cleaned up, the faster they could clear the air and he would be free of her. He didn’t need a woman with fancy requirements screwing with his brain.
As he reached the top of the porch stairs, he almost ran headlong into Sybil Franklin. The bleached blonde had checked in Monday with her husband and had been a pain in the ass ever since he’d laid eyes on her. From what he could tell, the woman was the second wife, the trophy, and hubby either turned a blind eye to her affairs, or had no earthly idea. Tall, with a set of breasts that had probably been paid for by her husband, Sybil was the epitome of the Texas debutante. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and in a pair of jeans that looked to be painted on, she’d been driving the ranch hands into lust since she’d arrived. Still, her husband was a good old boy whose family had made their money in the oil fields and got out before it busted. Nic was pretty sure the old guy could handle a gun if need be.
“Seems we have a late arrival,” she said, looking over his shoulder. He followed her gaze and tried not to laugh as Linda struggled to pull her suitcase out of the backseat. Curses followed each attempt to tug it out.
He turned back to Sybil. “L—Ms. Wheeler is part-owner of the ranch and is coming to stay for a bit.” And hopefully will be gone tomorrow.
Her attention shifted from Linda back to him. “Oh.” Her perfectly painted lips turned down in a pouty frown he was sure would drive other men crazy. It just irritated Nic. He didn’t have time for women who had agendas. “She doesn’t look like someone who would know anything about a ranch.”
That statement was followed by a loud curse and another oomph. He bit back a chuckle. Linda must have gotten the suitcase out of the car.
“Don’t let her fancy clothes fool you. The woman knows how to ride and rope better than many of my ranch hands. She was a barrel-racing champion in high school.”
He heard Linda dragging her suitcase across the rocks, cursing all the way.
“Definitely not very ladylike.” Sybil frowned harder as the sound of Linda’s footsteps grew closer. She apparently saw Linda as competition, but he knew there wasn’t any competition involved. Because if he were going to fool around, he would never do it with a guest, and he definitely wouldn’t do it with a married woman. And besides, he never could stand a fake woman.
Linda passed, without a word to either him or Sybil—didn’t even looked their way. She opened the screen door, cussing once more when her luggage got caught. One vicious yank, and the door slammed shut.
“Well, anyway …” Sybil sighed, her breasts rising partway above the low-cut neckline of her four-hundred-dollar western shirt. “… I was wondering if I could interest you in a ride tonight.”
From the way she said it, Nic knew she really wasn’t talking about a horse ride. He plastered on the most genuine smile he could offer. “Sorry. With Ms. Wheeler in town, there are things we need to discuss.” And thank God for that.
Her bottom lip thrust out in a genuine pout. She stepped closer, and he almost gagged when her overwhelming floral perfume reached him. He swallowed. Jesus, she must bathe in it. There was a good chance if he didn’t get a break he would throw up on her. Why did a woman think that a lot of perfume would attract a man?
“I’ll let you go tonight, but I really look forward to spending more time with you.”
She patted his cheek and then turned, swinging her ass as she sauntered away. Nic released a sigh. Relief poured through him. He was far from interested in a woman like that. There had been a time he would have ridden the bitch for all she was worth, not caring. Now he was too damn old to be caught with his pants down. And by a husband who might just shoot to kill.
He turned his thoughts back to Linda as he walked to the door. She wouldn’t have shown up if there wasn’t something she needed, desperately. But instead of the present situation, whatever that might be, he thought of her in another situation—naked and in his bed. The thought of her warm skin beneath his, of hearing her sigh his name, of slipping into her and having her muscles clinging to his cock, jolted him. He had to quit thinking that like. No matter how much he wanted her, she wanted something else entirely, and he’d bet it wouldn’t have a thing to do with stripping him naked and jumping his bones.