"I should warn you about my cousin," Carla stated casually as she flew down the flat expanse of highway. After turning off Interstate 20 the road was virtually empty, a perfect opportunity to push the new Nissan 350ZX Turbo boy magnet she'd just given herself. This was the first real chance Carla had had to open it up and both girls were enjoying the speed and freedom the little car embodied.
"The fact is you're exactly his type -- a delicate thing who's china-doll pale with big blue eyes and black hair. Of course, he's older than we are, the first child of the oldest son and all. He probably has six chicks on a string anyway. Likely, you don't have to worry. He'll be busy."
"Worry? Why would I worry? He's not a rapist, is he?" Lauren asked, laughing at her friend who seemed serious about the warning. Until now it had been a relaxed, girls out kind of trip. For Lauren it was an even greater step into independence than most, a welcome chance to get completely away from her loving yet stiflingly protective family. This little taste of Thelma and Louise was just the ticket as far as she was concerned. She was unwilling to let anything ruin the carefree weekend as they cruised down the road with the windows open. The sage and sun-laden air felt and smelled like sweet freedom.
"No, no, nothing like that. It's just that he's so 'in charge' about everything. He's the stereotypical tall, dark and handsome cowboy," Carla grumped as her long body shifted uncomfortably behind the wheel. "He's really bossy, dictatorial and a general pain in the ass. I'm only going to the ranch because all my other cousins will be there, and, well, I'd like to see his reaction to you."
"Me? Why me? He's seen a million of me according to you," Lauren commented in growing concern.
"Yeah, but he's never met you. The original Ice Queen is what you are and you know it. I know I should have told you about him sooner, but I was afraid you wouldn't come," Carla confessed. "I've told everyone else about you and they can hardly wait to meet you."
"What? Who is 'everyone' and why are they so eager to meet me?" Suspicious and irritated, Lauren slid around to face her friend.
"The cousins. They, um, well...I told them you'd turn a cold shoulder on him for sure. They're sort of anxious to see that," Carla confessed.
"I see. You're selling tickets to a show, Carla? That's low. You're right. I wouldn't have come if I'd known what you're up to. It's not fair to me and certainly isn't fair to what's his name."
"Aw, Lauren. He's an arrogant, never been wrong, never been turned down jerk," Carla responded. "His name is Romeo."
"You're kidding," Lauren scoffed.
"Nope, seriously not kidding. Sick, isn't it? He's rich, good-looking and named Romeo. You can hardly blame us for wanting him to get a little taste of humble pie. You're just the ticket. The woman of his dreams who's never gonna be interested." Carla's attractive face twisted in a grimace while her wide hazel eyes sparkled with mischief. High energy radiated off her long, lean body even after several hours of tedious driving. In almost every way the two girls were exact opposites. One tall and in constant motion, the other petite and surrounded in an almost palpable calm. Their instant friendship was a mystery to most until you got to know them.
"Carla, I came as a favor to you. You begged me to come because you'd be so 'bored.' I didn't agree to be the main attraction. You know I've never been on a ranch before and that alone makes me uncomfortable, with all the large, stinky animals and things. You promised it'd be fun. Now you spring this convoluted tale of what -- revenge?" Lauren frowned darkly.
"Come on, be a sport. You don't have to do anything differently than you normally would. I didn't actually lie. The ranch is a blast when Romeo isn't hanging around making up a bunch of rules. He really is a pain in the ass," Carla continued.
"What do you mean, a lot of rules?" Lauren asked.
"You know, no running at the pool, no cannon balling each other, no playing bumper horse, it's endless," Carla explained.
"Sounds like reasonable safety stuff to me. Are the cousins a bunch of teenagers?" Lauren wanted to know, doubtful now that she'd heard the complaints.
"Oh, we're all around our age, twenty to twenty-five now. Last time we were all at the ranch I guess we were teenagers." Carla laughed. "Oh, well, he deserves it. The man lives a charmed life, I swear. He needs shaking up."
"I hardly think my visit will relieve all the angst I hear in you, Carla. It's more like you and your cousins need therapy over this guy. Good grief. Those rules were an attempt to keep you all alive to reach your twenties. I doubt he'll give me a second look anyway. You'll be disappointed again and the little chip on your shoulder will just get bigger," Lauren predicted. "In any case, I don't intend to perform like some dancing bear. If it weren't such a long way back, I'd make you take me home."
They were three hours and forty-five minutes into the trip. Turning around now would be another three hours and forty-five minutes of being mad at each other as they drove back. Yuck.
"Yeah, I knew you would. Part of why I didn't work up the nerve to tell you 'til just now. Come on, Lauren. You know I love you. You're the one who got me through that whole Philip fiasco. I wouldn't do anything to hurt you. The Romeo junk isn't that important. I just thought I should warn you," Carla sheepishly added.
"I have a feeling it's the only important thing about this trip, Carla. I detest subterfuge. You know that. Tell me about your other cousins. The wild monkey ones," Lauren demanded. "I get the feeling I'll be the odd one out anyway. What the hell is 'bumper horse' and is it as dangerous as it sounds?"
Laughing at her city friend, Carla proceeded to explain bumper horse and various other activities. Soon Carla turned into an imposing entry gate and drove up a long, winding road to the Texas ranch her cousin owned. The drive was long enough for her to get through a short history of the ranch and its present bad-boy owner.
The ranch was the original family homestead, but now it was owned and operated by Carla's oldest cousin. His parents had died tragically young in a private plane crash. He'd been seventeen, an only child. His grandparents had still lived at the ranch then so they'd been his guardians. By the time Romeo turned twenty-two, they'd both passed away. He'd been sole owner and completely in charge for fifteen years now. His aunts, uncles and their families visited often. Somehow, he'd managed to retain the ranch as the family hub for the entire clan.
Privately Lauren was intrigued, although Carla told the whole story in an offhanded manner. Carla was not impressed with the man who'd been forced into the responsibilities of adulthood so young. As far as she was concerned, he'd been an ass forever.
As they pulled up to the sprawling ranch house, Lauren grinned. It looked like a scene from a western movie. The main house was a prominent feature but surrounded by barns and outbuildings in easy walking distance. A massive operation if you went by the number of barns, Lauren decided. A porch wrapped around the rambling house, which had obviously grown through several decades and styles. The resulting massive structure retained a relaxed casualness expressed in the comfortable rockers and porch swings distributed along the entire veranda. The landscaping surrounding the house was gracious and welcoming, as was everything about this large working operation.
Lauren stepped out on the far side of the car while Carla sprang up from behind the wheel to greet a number of young people. Lauren took the few seconds she remained unnoticed to glance about. The tang of cut hay mixed with animal scents drifted up from the barns. It wasn't unpleasant, just a sort of fresh outdoors smell she wanted to inhale into every part of her. It was a smell she'd never experienced before in a life filled with sterile interiors. Her gaze drifted to the side of the house to see a huge dog race around the corner. Following the dog sauntered a large man using a battered cowboy hat to beat the dust off his body. The man was tall and moved with the loose-limbed grace of muscles honed and developed through hard use. His rolling gait was simply the cowboy stroll at its finest. His dark head was bent as he whacked thick thighs with the hat. The shirt stretched interestingly across his heavily muscled chest might have been white or beige at one time, now it was mostly dirt-red and sweat-stained. The soft material moved with him to mold a flat abdomen then disappear into low-riding jeans. Slim hips seemed emphasized by the powerful long legs below them.
The man glanced up at the commotion and while his face didn't change, Lauren received the impression of a grimace as his eyes slid over the sporty little car they'd arrived in. His dark, lazy gaze traveled to the boisterous crowd and suddenly he looked directly into her eyes. Lauren blinked at the shocking intensity of that gaze and glanced down at the stampeding dog again. Coming from the side made its path a direct line to Lauren first. The dog was completely okay with the arrangement as he managed to doggy-grin and wag his tail while pounding across the lawn. Lauren weighed a hundred and ten pounds -- the dog had her beat by at least seventy and showed no signs of slowing down. Lauren considered jumping in the car again but that just seemed too cowardly. No one else appeared concerned. They wouldn't let a killer dog run loose, would they?
A plump lower lip sucked and white teeth clamped down on it as she watched the thundering approach. Abruptly a low whistle pierced the air and the dog stopped, turned in a flash and rushed back at the man. Lauren's eyes shot up to him and a hint of a grin met her gaze. He kept moving toward the group as a whole but looked only at her. His focused attention was just beginning to feel uncomfortable when Carla called her ...
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.