NICK BRADEN KNEW better than to mess with trouble.
As an elite freestyle horse trainer and showman, he had buckle bunnies at his beck and call. So why the hell was he hanging out in Justus “JJ” Jericho’s pub in Oak Falls, Virginia, when he could be back home in Pleasant Hill, Maryland, where one phone call could scratch that itch with no ramifications?
He took a swig of his beer, his gaze drifting to the answer, who was wiggling her fine ass on the dance floor in skimpy cutoffs and cowgirl boots. Welcome to Oak Falls, Virginia, home to horse farms, midnight rodeos, and the hottest risk-taking, Daisy Duke–wearing cowgirl on the planet, Trixie Fucking Jericho. The way his close friend made him feel was Trouble with a capital T.
“Hey, Nick, are you finally going to seal the deal or what?” Shane asked.
Nick dragged his eyes away from Trixie, and as cheers filtered in from the mechanical bull room, the crowded bar and the band came back into focus, and he realized he’d zoned out watching her again. Jeb and Shane Jericho, two of Trixie’s four older brothers, flanked him at the bar. Her brother JJ was bartending, and Trace was at home with his new wife and baby girl. Nick looked at his buddies, trying to remember what they’d asked. Like him, the Jericho men were tall, dark, powerfully built, and used to working their fingers to the bone. Shane, Trace, and Trixie ran their family’s cattle and horse ranch, and Jeb was a furniture maker and owned a shop in town.
“Sorry, man,” Nick said. “What was the question?”
“I’m right with you, bro.” Jeb lifted his chin in the direction of the band. “It’s easy to get caught up in Sable strutting her stuff onstage in those tight jeans, isn’t it? Mm-mm. She just keeps getting hotter.”
Sable Montgomery was a mechanic by day and the lead guitarist and singer in the band Surge by night. The tall, stacked brunette was loaded with enough snark to bury a man. Nick liked a fine, challenging woman, but Sable did nothing for him, unlike sharp-tongued Trixie, who could drop a weaker man to his knees with a single sentence.
“Gotta love ladies’ night,” Shane said, making eyes at a buxom blonde a few feet away.
“Sure,” Nick said halfheartedly, taking another pull of his beer. The joke around town was that the Jericho men could finesse the wildness out of a horse as well as they could charm the panties off a woman. What no one was stupid enough to say out loud was that Trixie possessed the same abilities toward men. Like metal to a magnet, his eyes found Trixie again. Her wild dark mane swung over her shoulders. Nick’s fingers curled with the desire to be buried in that hair. Fuck. He turned around and leaned on the bar before his buddies noticed him leering at their sister.
“So, are you going to make an offer on the horse you came to check out?” Shane asked, his eyes drifting back to the blonde. “You’ve been here twice in the last few weeks to see it.”
“Right, the horse. Nah. I’m not buying it.” Nick had come to Oak Falls to check out that horse, but he had no idea why he was still there. It wasn’t like he was going to seal any deal with Trixie, and not just because there was an unspoken rule between guys about not going after their buddies’ younger sisters. He and Trixie had been friends for years. She had been taking part in the same running, biking, and swimming races as Nick’s younger brother Graham and their cousin Ty since she was a teenager. But over the last few years, she and Nick had become incredibly close friends. He could be a gruff bastard, and she was one of the few women who understood his die-hard work ethic, his moods, and his connection to his animals. She was the unique combination of smart, confident cowgirl, badass thrill seeker, and sweet, caring woman.
It was that last part that was causing him the most trouble lately.
They’d become so close that he found himself thinking about her when she wasn’t around, which was too damn often. They saw each other five or six times a year when he was down her way for work or family events, or when she’d come through Maryland to pick up horses, deliver cattle, take part in a race, or when she just needed a break from Oak Falls. As the second oldest of six siblings, Nick understood that need to get away. He loved his close-knit family and their quaint hometown, but he knew how suffocating both could be.
Trixie stayed with Nick when she was in town, though she spent time hanging out with his younger sister, Jillian. Jillian was a clothing designer and a night owl, and like any good rancher worth her salt, Trixie was up with the sun. When Trixie had first come to him four or five years ago, asking if she could stay at his place instead of Jillian’s, it was a no-brainer for him to say yes, even though he liked his solitude. He was a natural protector, and Trixie was like family. It had taken some getting used to, having another person in his house, much less a beautiful woman. But Trixie wasn’t like most women, fussing with their hair and makeup and talking about nonsense. She didn’t mind getting her hands dirty and always pitched in to help around the ranch without being asked. Luckily, she also enjoyed giving him hell and telling him he was doing things wrong. If there was one thing Nick hated, it was being told what to do. It hadn’t taken much effort in those early years to slide her into an off-limits category.
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