“Excuse me, Miss?”
Paulina Osborne looked up from her phone at the sound of the bartender’s voice. The wide eyed blond wore jeans tight enough to cut off her circulation and a t-shirt with the name of the restaurant, Copper Creek Bar and Grill, pulled tightly across her ample breasts. She looked young enough to make Paulina wonder if she was even old enough to be serving drinks, but she’d mixed Paulina’s drink with the expertise of someone with a lot of experience behind a bar.
“The gentleman,” the bartender’s tone said she used the term lightly, “at the end of the bar would like to buy you a drink.”
Even though she wasn’t interested, her gaze automatically flicked to her right, where she caught sight of the guy in question, standing with his hip cocked, his gaze trained on her. His worn in Wranglers, pearl snap shirt, and dust covered boots said cowboy. He was the real deal too, not one of the posers, though there were several of those on hand at this evening’s happy hour as well. He no doubt worked at one of the dozens of ranches scattered around Bozeman, Montana.
He was cute enough, with his shaggy blond hair and blue eyes that crinkled as he grinned at her.
“Tell him no thanks,” she said, gesturing to her nearly full Manhattan the bartender had served her just moments before. “I’m meeting someone.”
Okay, so she was meeting Katie Conley, her best friend from high school, not some hot date. Not that he needed to know that. There was a a time when she would have taken him up on his offer, let him sidle up next to her at the bar She’d flirt and laugh and dance. If she decided he was a likely candidate to be her next friends with benefits, she’d end the night by giving him her number and arrange for their next meetup.
Or maybe not, she thought as she caught him glaring hard at her as his companions gave him a hard time for striking out.. But even if he hadn’t shown himself to be a sulky jerk who didn’t do well with rejection, she wasn’t interested.
Ever since her last friends with benefits, a guy named Ethan who bartended at the Rocking J Bar which was just down the street, had fizzled last year, Paulina had been over the whole dating – if you could even call it dating – thing. It was all such a hassle, trying to find the time to make the hour drive to Bozeman from her home in Big Timber to hang out. By the end, even making the drive once a week was a chore, even if the sex had been pretty damn great.
In the end, she couldn’t blame him when he’d thrown her over for a girl who lived here in Bozeman and was, even more conveniently, a cocktail waitress at the Rocking J.
In the past, she would have gotten on a dating app and looked for a likely prospect who lived at least thirty miles from her tiny, insular, gossip soaked home town. She would get something going until she either grew too board or too busy to bother, or, as in Ethan’s case, the guy decided he wanted more of a full time girlfriend. Something he damn well wasn’t going to find in Paulina.
Ever since things with Ethan had ended, the prospect of finding someone else she could drive an hour each way to Netflix and chill with just seemed to be too much effort for too little reward. And no way in hell was she going to date someone from Big Timber. Even if there were any eligible bachelors, which there were decidedly not.
Carefully averting her gaze from the cowboy’s glare, she sipped at her drink and picked up her phone. Katie was now a full half hour late, she noted with a sigh. She opened up Instagram and scrolled through her feed, then posted a photo she’d taken this morning at sunrise. “Sunrise at Lazy Creek Guest Ranch. So excited to welcome our first guests of the season this weekend!” She included a bunch of hashtags about cowboys, horseback riding, and ranch life, then tagged the Montana Board of Tourism, the Dude Rancher’s Association, and several past guests of the ranch who followed their feed.
Her father and her uncles might think the social media marketing had any effect, but she knew for a fact that at least two families who had made reservations for the upcoming summer found the ranch through a friend’s Instagram feed.
As she pushed “share,” her phone buzzed in her hand. Katie’s number came up on the display.
“Where are you?” Paulina said, wincing at the sound of a toddler’s wail echoed in the background. “I’m already halfway through my drink.”
“I’m so sorry – sweetie, no, put that down.”
Katie sounded typically harried, which made sense since she was a stay at home mom to a two year old son and a six month old girl. “I was all ready to go out the door and then Chance threw up all over me.”
“Ugh,” Paulina said and winced even though Katie couldn’t see it.
“And I can’t leave Ian home with both him and Olivia when Chance is barfing. There’s no way he can handle it.”
Paulina rolled her eyes. Though she didn’t say so, she suspected that Ian’s inability to handle his infant daughter and sick toddler had less to do with his incompetence than with Katie’s – in Paulina’s opinion anyway – extremely controlling approach to motherhood. Paulina had witnessed it firsthand on several occasions, most recently a few months ago when she’d gone to their house just outside of Bozeman for a visit. Katie had flipped out at Ian for putting soft leather booties on Olivia’s tiny feet instead of the pink Converse All Stars Katie had set out.
Paulina’s inquiry as to why a baby who couldn’t even crawl yet needed rubber soled shoes was met with a withering glare. However, Paulina couldn’t say much since she wasn’t even close to having kids of her own yet. Besides, she had her own control freak tendencies.
“Do you want to come hang out here?” There was a crash in the background, followed by a wail – from Olivia this time – that threatened to pierce Paulina’s eardrum.
“I think it’s better if I don’t.” She felt a pinch of guilt at her refusal. She knew how hard it was on Katie, alone all day with two tiny kids, and knew her friend was starved for adult companionship. But as much as she loved her goddaughter and godson, she’d really been looking forward to catching up with her friend in a kid free environment. She couldn’t remember the last time she and Katie had been able to talk without being interrupted by an exploding diaper or someone screaming over having to wear pants.
Call her selfish, but she was twenty nine and still single and childless, so she was allowed to be.
“It sounds like you and Ian have your hands full. And I don’t want to catch anything, especially with guest season just around the corner.”
“I understand.” Katie’s reply was steeped in disappointment. “We’ll find another time.”
Paulina promised to call her soon, knowing full well it would be at least three months before she saw Katie. Guest season at the Lazy Creek, though it lasted only three and half months, was always a crazy whirlwind of twelve, sometimes eighteen hour days as she and her family strove to provide their guests with an unforgettable dude ranch vacation.
As the assistant manager, Paulina was used to spending the summer in a work filled blur. But this summer would be even more intense. First, her Aunt Wendy had decided to retire from managing the ranch’s restaurant. Then her sister in law, Colleen was put on bedrest at twenty weeks pregnant. That meant her older brother, JT had to scale back in his duties as general manager. Paulina was going to have her hands extra full, and was relishing the chance to prove to her family she was capable of much more than things like fetching extra linens for guests and posting pretty pictures on the internet.
Resigned to another evening alone, she sighed, sipped at her drink and let her gaze wander around the bar and restaurant. Thanks to it being the home to Montana State University, and its proximity to Yellowstone and world class skiing, Bozeman had attracted a pretty diverse crowd, especially compared to Big Timber. As such, downtown was lousy with craft breweries and swanky bars. The Copper Creek was a bit of throwback. It had wood paneled walls decorated with numerous game heads. Including the obligatory jackalope meant to dupe unsuspecting tourists into believing the Montana grasslands were populated by a species of antlered jack rabbits.
The menu was devoid of craft cocktails and its wine and beer list were short and to the point. She debated ordering food, although it would be better for her wallet and her waistline if she finished her drink and headed back to the ranch. But damn, those jalapeno poppers were tempting.
As her internal debate continued, she surveyed the happy hour crowd, careful to avoid making eye contact with the surly cowboy who had retreated with his two friends to a pool table in the corner.
The customers showed a good cross section of Bozeman. Clustered around one tall cocktail table was a group of obvious outsiders, either tourists or transplants. She could tell by their designer jeans and hand tooled cowboy boots which had obviously never come into contact with a pile of horse manure.
Then there were the college kids, playing pool against the cowboy and his friends. They chugged beer and slapped each others’ backs while a group of girls in identical outfits of skinny jeans and strappy tank tops cheered them on. Paulina would bet her barrel racing championship belt buckle that most of them ordered their drinks with fake IDs.
Several locals intermingled, the dressed in faded Wranglers and boots. Some of the women wore fringed shirts fit for a rodeo queen and jeans tight enough it made Paulina wince in her seat just to look at them.
She watched as they all buzzed in their little groups, making eyes and flirting with each other. Alone at the bar, she watched them with an analytical air, observing the young single crowd the way a primatologist might observe a group of chimpanzees.
Two of the females have separated themselves from the group and are gyrating rhythmically against one another in a way meant to pique the males’ curiosity about their possible bisexuality. It has caught the attention of several of the males. They drink their beverages and nod approvingly as they no doubt imagine a sexual scenario that will play out later in the night.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the surly cowboy do a shot of what looked like whiskey. One of his friends said something to earn him a dirty look over his shoulder as he headed for the bar.
Paulina dipped her chin so her long dark hair fell forward to provide a sort of privacy screen as she hoped he was just headed for a refill.
No such luck. The odor of whiskey announced his approach. The rejected male has come back to the disinterested female.
“Looks like who ever you were going to meet stood you up.”
Paulina turned slowly, as though she didn’t realize he was talking to her. His smile was tight and didn’t reach his eyes.
“Now what man would be foolish enough to leave a pretty lady like you all alone?”
She took a long sip of her drink. “Who says it was a man? And who says I’m a lady?”
His eyes flared with delight. At the prospect she might be lesbian? That she didn’t care about being ladylike? She didn’t care. She just wanted him gone so she could finish her drink in peace.
“Well that’s even better.” He stepped closer and leaned one elbow on the bar next to her. Nobody better light a match, she thought, as the whiskey fumes emanating off of him would have them going up in flames. “You’re drink’s almost empty,” he said, pointing at her Manhattan. “How about you let me buy you another one and we can get to know each other a little.”
He reached out and placed his hand on her forearm, left bare by her short sleeved top.
“No thanks.” She jerked her arm away. “In case I didn’t make it clear before, I’m not interested.”
His lips curled into an ugly sneer and he locked his hand around her wrist, squeezing hard. “You were right about not being a lady. Bitch, you need someone to teach you some manners.” He jerked at her arm as like he was going to drag her off her stool and take her somewhere to “educate” her.
In a well practiced move, she twisted her arm around and down to slip out of his hold. “What, because I don’t want to spend time with a loser who smells like he just crawled out of a bourbon barrel, that makes me a bitch?” Next to her hip, the she curled the fingers of her right hand into her palm, the muscles of her arm tensing as she prepared to smash the heel of her hand against the bottom of his nose.
Growing up in a male dominated environment, she’d learned early to stand up for herself. That included defending herself physically, if needed.
“Sorry I’m late, honey,” a deep voice resonated behind her. “Traffic was a bitch.”
She didn’t take her eyes off the surly cowboy, who still held her arm in his grip but was now aiming his snarl over her head.
“I think you better let her go,” her self appointed savior said in a voice that made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck.
Even through his drunken haze, the cowboy must have felt the same undercurrent of danger, because he let go of her, pushed away from the bar and stalked off, calling her a particularly foul name under his breath.
Great, now after all that chest thumping, the guy probably expected her to bat her eyelashes and thank him properly for being such a big, strong he man.
She swiveled on her stool, intent on telling him he wasn’t about to get any luckier than the whiskey soaked cowboy, but the first sight of him froze the dismissal in her throat.
Whoa. Paulina didn’t find herself at a loss for words often. Especially not when it came to men. But this man, holy hell, he was, in a word, stunning. Not in a perfectly groomed, prince charming, male model kind of way. No, his beauty was all hard featured and hard bodied. He was a man with a capital M, oozing so much testosterone that she thought she better pick up a pregnancy test before she drove home tonight.
He had dark hair that waved slightly above his ears and brown eyes framed by heavy brows. Those eyes glinted with humor. His full lips, framed by a closely cropped beard, quirked in a half smile.
Paulina swallowed hard and forced herself to unglue her tongue from the roof of her mouth. She was not the type of woman to be rendered speechless by a man, no matter how hot he was. “You didn’t need to swoop in and rescue me. I had the situation under control.”
“Is that a fact?” One eyebrow quirked up. His smile widened, revealing straight white teeth and his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Looked to me like he wasn’t inclined to take no for an answer.”
Her stomach did a little flip. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and raised her chin. “I was five seconds away from smashing the heel of my hand into his nose. I find most guys back off when their nose is broken and gushing blood down the front of their shirts.”
He gave her an appraising look. “That’s one way to handle it. But look at the bright side. Because of my interference, we managed to resolve the situation without violence. Mind if I sit?” he indicated the stool to her left.
“It’s a free country,” she said with a nonchalance she didn’t feel. Despite her resolve not to dip her toe in any way shape or form into the dating world tonight, Mr. Tall Dark And Dangerous over here had every cell in her body singing with awareness. As he settled into the seat next to her, she caught his scent over the smell of spilled beer and fried food. Soap and laundry detergent mingled with an aroma that was all male. A curl of heat unfurled in her belly as she imagined burying her nose in the crook where his strong neck met his massive shoulder.
The muscles of his arms shifted and bunched under the sleeves of his soft looking long sleeved t-shirt as he settled his elbows on the bar. He hooked one booted foot on the bottom rung of his stool and angled his denim clad knee out so it came within inches of brushing hers.
“Isn’t this the part where you offer to buy me a drink,” she said when he was quiet for several seconds.
He turned his head, his eyes widening in an “oh, are you still there?” look that she didn’t buy for a minute.
She’d seen the awareness in his eyes as he took in her blue eyes, dark hair, and especially the hint of cleavage exposed by the two buttons left undone on her silky green top.
He rotated his stool to face her more fully. “I thought this was the part where you offered to buy me a drink to thank me for coming to your rescue.”
He shot her another grin, and she couldn’t keep an answering one off her face. He was quick. She liked that. And he was hot enough to set a woman’s panties on fire. She liked that too.
“I suspect your intentions weren’t entirely honorable My Nana always said to never trust a man with a beard.”
“And why’s that?” He brought one hand up to absently stroke his beard covered jaw.
She paused, temporarily mesmerized by the sight of that big, strong, long fingered hand. It was tan, with a few thin white scars on the back and the knuckles. A big, strong, working man’s hands.
Her favorite kind.
She yanked her brain away from thoughts of how those working man’s hands might feel against her skin. “Because he’s probably hiding a weak chink indicating an equally weak character.”
He chuckled, a low, rumbling sound that rippled through her and settled heavily, low in her belly. He leaned in close as though to let her in on a secret. “One thing you should know about me.”
“What’s that?” She leaned toward him, close enough to see the little flecks of gold in his brown eyes.
“There’s very little about me that’s weak.”
Reflecting on the way his muscles rippled under the soft fabric of his shirt, she was inclined to believe him.
“Happy hour ends in five minutes,” the bartender from before was back. She had eyes only for her rescuer, resting her weight on her elbows so her assets were front and center. “I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss the discounted prices.” She gave him a flirty grin.
“I’ll have another Manhattan,” Paulina interjected. She knew she would have to wait awhile to drive home if she had another drink. But she was feeling oddly territorial, and didn’t want to leave her new acquaintance to the mercy of the obviously interested bartender. Not to mention about seventy five percent of the other female patrons, judging by the speculative glances darting his way. “And whatever my friend wants is on me.”
“I’m Lina,” she wasn’t sure why she introduced herself by her childhood nickname, but for some reason it felt right. She turned back to face him and held out her hand as the bartender went to mix her Manhattan and pour him a double Bulleit Rye over ice.
“Mack.” His big hand practically swallowed hers whole. A shock of heat rushed through her as his callused palm pressed into hers, sizzling up her arm and lighting up every nerve ending in her body.
“So are you from around here, Mack?” She forced the words from her suddenly dry mouth as the bartender slid their drinks in front of them.
“No,” he shook his head and withdrew his hand. She had to fight the urge not to clutch it to her. She grabbed her drink from the bar and took a drink to distract herself.
“Just passing through,” he said and took a sip of his drink. He told her he’d recently retired from the military and was taking a break before starting a new position in his step father’s real estate development firm. “I’ve always loved Montana, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to spend some time up here when I could.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty hard to beat, especially in the summer.” Even though she’d lived here all of her life, she never got tired of the ruggedly beautiful mountains, the almost painfully bright blue sky and the fields of grass that rippled like waves in the warm summer winds. She couldn’t imagine every leaving. “Real estate development? I imagine that’s a big change from the military.”
He shrugged and took another pull from his drink. “Yeah, but after twenty years it’s time. And it’s steady and secure, better than a lot of my friends had when they got out.”
He must be older than she first thought, she realized. She studied him, now noticing the fine lines around his eyes, the few flecks of gray in his beard. Late thirties, maybe even early forties, she’d guess.
Older than she was by maybe a decade, though he would hardly be robbing the cradle. Not that either of them would need to worry about that.
Liar. From the moment she ordered that second drink, she had been thinking about where the night might go.
“What about you? What do you do?”
His question pulled her from thoughts of tangled sheets and tangled bodies. She told him she was the assistant manager at one of the local resorts, deliberately keeping the details vague. “Mostly I worry about whether or not the guests are happy. It’s not always easy work, but nothing like being in the army, I’m sure.”
He gave her a faint smile, but she didn’t miss the shadow that flickered in his eyes. She quelled the urge to ask more questions about him, about his past, about the source of that darkness that had briefly surfaced.
Tonight wasn’t about sharing any deep, dark secrets. Tonight was about fun and light and flirting with this gorgeous male specimen who had wandered into her life.
“Although, I bet you never had any vegan raw foodists to contend with,” she said.
He gave a surprised chuckle. “Is that even a thing?”
It was, she assured him, and told him about a couple who had stayed at the ranch two years ago. “They were from California.”
“Where else would you get vegan raw foodists?” he gave an exaggerated eye roll.
“And they made it very clear they ate no animal products whatsoever, and everything had to be raw. I mean take one look at our menu and it’s all meat, meat, and more meat. I don’t know what they were thinking. But, whatever, the customer is always right, and all that.”
“So what did they eat?”
“Lots of salads, tons of fruit. Some nuts. One morning the guy had seven bananas for breakfast.”
“Did you have to snake the toilets in their room after they left? Jesus.” He leaned back and drained the last of his drink.
Paulina finished hers as well, warm and buzzy in a way that had less to do with the alcohol than with the man sitting beside her. She almost wished he was sticking around Bozeman for more than a couple of days. Something told her Mack would be more than worth a two hour round trip from Big Timber.
Mack signaled the bartender over for a refill. “You?” He pointed at her empty glass.
She shook her head. “I better not. As it is, I’m going to have to wait awhile before I drive home.”
As the bartender turned to pour his drink he turned to her, a sly grin playing at the corners of his lips. He reached out one hand and placed it just above her knee. The head of his palm scorched her through the fabric of her jeans. “I’m more than happy to keep you occupied while you sober up.”
She swallowed hard as his touch send a rush of heat and awareness through her body. She had no doubt what he was talking about, and the thought had her thighs clenching against the heavy pulse of desire throbbing between them.
But she wasn’t a one night stand kind of girl, she reminded herself. Kissing a guy she’d just met, maybe fooling around a little was as far as she’d ever gone, but she’d always waited at least a couple of dates before she had sex. She always liked to have the friends part of the friends with benefits somewhat established before she did the deed.
Unfortunately, Mack was just passing through. She didn’t have the luxury of a couple of dates to wait. And now, after over a year of celibacy, her libido was roaring back to life, right here at the Copper Creek Bar and Grill. It urged, no, demanded that she not waste this opportunity. Not tonight. Not with this man.
Mack could be her last indulgence before a long summer of endless work, one last treat for herself before the summer season completely consumed her life.
She placed her hand over Mack’s and moved it a couple inches higher. “I’d very much appreciate that.”