READ the first two chapters of Craved by the Cowboy by Hope Ford
CHAPTER 1 ACE
There’s a thousand emotions I’m feeling right now, but I’m trying not to let any of them get the best of me. This is it. My last ride. Or well, if I do well in the first one, I’ll have another one, but today is my last day on the circuit. I thought I would be sadder, but I’m not. The fact is that I’ve been ready to move on for quite some time now. I’ve built my nest egg, and I’ve got a neglected ranch that I’ve made all kinds of plans for. Sure, it would be nice to have a woman to share it with, but there’s only one woman that would do, and she’s off limits.
Just thinking about her, my palms get sweaty, my heart races, and my cock twitches in my Wranglers. The truth is, I’ve wanted Lila Grant for as long as I can remember, which is probably not a good thing since I’m twelve years older than her. Also the fact that she’s my mentor and best friend’s daughter. None of that plays in my favor.
But here I am, forty-two years old and starting a new chapter in my life. I’m sitting in the private section of the audience, the one for trainers, agents, and cowboys that are between rides. My friend and mentor, Reilly Grant, is sitting next to me, and I feel a little guilty that I’ve let my thoughts go to his daughter. “I appreciate you coming today, Reilly. It means a lot to me. Everything you’ve ever done for me I appreciate.”
He slaps me on the back. “Hell, son. You’re not getting all sentimental on me, are you?”
I laugh, but I know that if anyone’s sentimental, it’s Reilly. He cares way more than he lets on. He was once the best bull rider there was. That is until he got a little older and then trained me. He never batted an eye when I broke all his records. He’s like the father I never had, and I owe him a lot. I definitely shouldn’t be lusting after his daughter, that’s for sure. “So how you been? How’s the ranch?”
He nods his head, his eyes on the ride happening in front of us. “He’s going to lose his footing.”
As soon as he says it, the guy on the bull in front of us loses his grip on the beast underneath him and gets tossed into the air. Reilly doesn’t gloat or smirk that he’s right. He just shakes his head. “The ranch is doing good. It makes a difference when you can dedicate full time to it.”
I nod. “I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.” I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t stop myself. “What about Lila? How’s she doing?”
He looks at me for the first time since we sat down here. He searches my face, but I try to look as if I don’t have a care in the world. I’ve learned to keep my guard up when it comes to talking to Reilly about his daughter. He stares at me so long that I want to fidget, but I hold strong. He finally answers me. “She says she’s doing good. Still living in Whiskey Valley and commuting into Jasper to work at the hospital.” He strokes his beard and looks out at the arena. “Honestly, I’m a little worried about her.”
I straighten in my seat. “What? Why? Is someone bothering her?” The thought that something could be wrong with Lila has my hands tightening around the bench I’m sitting on. I have no qualms about kicking someone’s ass, especially if they’ve hurt her. Fuck, I need to let off some steam anyway.
Reilly laughs and pats me on the back, softer this time. “Hell, Ace, don’t get your panties in a wad. I’m just saying I worry about her driving back and forth on that long highway between Jasper and Whiskey Valley. She works all hours of the day. Hell, the other night she didn’t get in until two in the morning. I just worry is all.”
The truth is, Whiskey Valley is a small town with hardly any crime. Sure, there’s some petty theft or a few bar fights, but nothing major. However, I understand where he’s coming from when he’s talking about the drive into Jasper. “Anytime she needs something, I can help out, Reilly. I’m up half the night anyway. It wouldn’t be anything for me to go pick her up and take her back and forth to work.”
Fuck, it would be a dream to spend time with her, but Reilly’s already shaking his head like it’s a bad idea. “You know Lila. She’s all independent. There’s no way she’d agree to putting you out like that. But maybe now that you’re finally settling down on your ranch in Whiskey Valley, you can help me keep an eye on her. Maybe check in with her every now and then.”
“Sure, Reilly. No problem. I’d be happy to,” I answer him, and I know as soon as I say it I deserve a kick in the nuts. My friend, my mentor is wanting me to keep an eye on his daughter, and the thoughts I’m having… fuck, I want to take care of her, but I know it’s not the way Reilly’s thinking.
“She’s coming today.”
I hear it, but it takes a minute to register. “What was that?”
He smirks at me. “Lila. She’s coming here today. She wanted to make sure she was here to see your last ride.”
From that minute on, I have my eyes glued to the entrance of the arena. I should be stretching and getting ready for my ride, but instead I’m sitting here waiting anxiously on a woman that absolutely nothing can happen with. Many times, I’ve told myself to give up on the thought of being with Lila, but it’s not that easy. No one else even comes close to how I feel for her. Thoughts of having a family are just that because there’s no one else I want… and Lila is one hundred percent off limits.
CHAPTER 2 LILA
I see Ace as soon as I walk into the arena. He’s handsome with his salt and pepper beard, big shoulders, and the cowboy hat that I know is hiding his light blue eyes. Everything about Ace Tucker is committed to memory for me. It seems I know everything about him. His mannerisms, his favorite foods, the way he looks riding on the back of a bull and commands attention from everyone in a room. He’s something else and right now he’s sitting in the private stands section next to my father. There are women surrounding him. Even now I can see two women a few rows back ogling him, just hoping to get his attention.
The thought causes me to have an ache in my chest, but it’s nothing new. There are a lot of buckle bunnies that have been vying for Ace’s attention through the years. I’ve never once actually seen him with one of them, but it’s a well-known fact that Ace Tucker can have his pick of women. I’m completely lost in thought when Jessy, another rider and an ex from years ago, walks up to me. He hasn’t changed a bit, and his cocky attitude is still in effect as he stops in front of me, blocking my path. I try to keep my temper in check. “Hey Jessy, can you let me by?”
I think the fact that he cheated on me when we were dating and I didn’t throw a fit or beg him to take me back bothers him, because every time I see him, he wants to get in my face. “Hey Lila. How about me and you grab dinner after I win this thing?”
I cross my arms over my chest. “I thought Ace was competing today.”
He shrugs, confused. “Yeah, he is.”
I nod and with a smirk, I shrug my shoulders. “Oh, well, I’m sure he’ll win it, but good luck anyway.”
I take a step around him and walk past as quickly as I can. I know Jessy, and once he’s made one pass at me, he won’t give up. My dad waves at me, and I wave back with a huge smile on my face. I grew up at rodeos and love the atmosphere. The cheering, the animals, the food, the comradery. All of it is amazing, but I especially love watching Ace perform. Nothing compares to that.
I start up the steps where Dad and Ace are sitting, but before I get close, Ace is up walking toward me with a scowl on his face. I’m taken aback because Ace has never looked at me like he is now, and it’s then that I realize Jessy is right behind me. Ace reaches for me and puts himself between Jessy and me. “What the fuck, Jessy? I thought I told you to stay the fuck away from Lila.”
Even though he says it low, everyone in the stands around us are staring, wondering what’s happening. It’s obviously a tense situation, and I step to the side and put my hand on Ace’s hard chest. “It’s fine. He’s not worth it.”
Ace looks at me, and just like every other time he’s looked at me, there’s a tremble that travels through my body. I try not to get this close to him because I know he’ll notice the effect he has on me. Ace covers my hand on his chest and holds it there. My eyes widen in surprise while his look hardens. “It’s not fine. He cheated on you, and that is not okay. He hurt you, and he’s lucky that I didn’t break his legs.” He drags his gaze from mine and looks at Jessy. “Back the fuck up, Jessy. I won’t ask you again.”
Jessy is dumb, and I don’t know what I ever saw in him. He laughs as if this is all one big joke and holds his hands up. “Yeah, sure thing, old timer. No problem.”
He walks down the steps, and Ace’s gaze returns to mine. I don’t know if I want to tell him off for making a scene or pounce on him and kiss him right here. I figure the best offense is a good defense. I jerk my hand off his chest. “You’re not my keeper, Ace. I don’t need you protecting me.”
He pushes his hat farther up on his head. “Tough shit, princess. If you think I’ll ever just stand by when someone is fucking with you, then you’re sorely mistaken.”
I’m a pro at hiding my reactions. As a nurse at the hospital, I have to keep my personal feelings and reactions in check, but somehow, Ace has always been able to read me, and that’s exactly why I can’t look him in the face right now. His possessiveness should piss me off, but it doesn’t. Instead, it causes a heat in my lower belly that I can’t exactly explain.
He opens his arms, and I know we’re still the center of attention, but stuff like that doesn’t bother him. “What? No hug? I haven’t seen you in a while.”
And just like that, Ace has me laughing. I never can stay mad at him, and he knows it. I laugh and shake my head before walking into his arms. Ace gives the best hugs. He squeezes me hard, his arms around my shoulders and mine around his waist. He rocks me slowly side to side and rests his chin on the top of my head. If I could stay like this forever, I would. The hug lasts so long that it starts to feel awkward. It’s almost like neither one of us wants to let go, but most likely, it’s just me. I pull back and look up at him. “That’s enough, cowboy, or else all your drooling fans are going to be heartbroken thinking you’re taken.”
He tilts his head, searching my eyes. I meant it as a joke, but it came out as something more. Can he hear the tinge of jealousy in my voice? Does he know that I wish it was me he wanted to be with?
He puts an arm around my shoulder. “Let them think whatever they want to. But there’s only one woman that I want, and I can’t have her.”
My eyes snap up to his, and he mumbles, “Fuck” like he just gave something away he shouldn’t have. Sometimes when he looks at me like he’s looking now, I wonder if there could ever be something between Ace and me. There’s always been a tension between us, but I’ve never been brave enough to ask him about it. Mostly because I remember that he’s my dad’s best friend. Plus, the fact that he could have any woman in here has me drawing away from him. I can’t compete with the skinny buckle bunnies. No, I’m better off getting my head out of the clouds and being content with the friendship I have with Ace.
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