Nugget Romance #5
November 10, 2015
Kensington Publishing (Lyrical Shine)
Available in: Audio, e-Book, Trade Size
Fortune favors the bold…
In Nugget, California, a tiny town tucked into the Sierra Nevada mountains, luck is what you make it, and love is never far behind…
From his humble beginnings in Nugget, Lucky Rodriguez has become a champion on the rodeo circuit, truly living up to his name in every regard. But when he returns home, he gets something success can’t buy: a daughter he never knew he had. And the girl’s mother, an old friend he hasn’t thought about since, now touches his heart like no buckle bunny ever could.
Tawny Wade hasn’t always had luck on her side. She fell for a boy she couldn’t have, lost her parents too young, and now her daughter needs a transplant she can’t provide. But if Lucky is a stem cell match, all that could change. The trouble is, Lucky’s got a past in Nugget that makes him off-limits as anything more than a donor for her daughter. And yet, Tawny’s never stopped loving the man who now holds her family’s fate in his cowboy-callused hands…
“Come back here!” Lucky propped up on both elbows and watched Raylene shimmy into her denim skirt.
“What’s the rush?”
“I promised my parents I’d be back in time for dinner.”
Lucky reached over and grabbed his watch off the nightstand. “It’s still early.”
“I have to shower and change,” she said, pulling a miniscule tank top over her head.
“Shower here. With me.”
Raylene scanned the single-wide trailer, and Lucky could’ve sworn she grimaced. Granted, it wasn’t fancy—a tin can, really, with a few pieces of shabby furniture Lucky had rummaged from some of the outbuildings on his property. But he got the bed new and the place was clean. And temporary. Pretty soon his construction crew would finish converting one of the bunkhouses into his office and private quarters.
“It’s best if I get home before anyone sees me in this.” Raylene looked down at the miniskirt that barely covered the dental floss she called underwear and pulled on her cowboy boots. The slutty getup might’ve gotten him off with the buckle bunnies he typically consorted with, but not Raylene. On her it didn’t sit right with him. It made her seem cheap.
“Don’t you think it’s time to take us public?” Lucky swung his legs over the side of the bed, found his Levi’s on the floor, and shoved them on, buttoning the fly. Next, he tugged on his ropers.
“We’ve been over this, Lucky.”
“Yeah, well, I’m tired of all this sneaking around.” He’d loved the woman since middle school, and was getting weary of the clandestine bootie calls. Sometime soon he’d like to take her on an actual date.
“I don’t want Butch to find out while we’re still hashing out the settlement. Besides, there’s my father and your mother to consider.” Neither would be happy that Lucky and Raylene were seeing each other. A lot of bad blood between the two families.
Raylene pushed Lucky back onto the bed and straddled his lap with her long, tanned legs. “Try to be patient, baby. For me.” She pouted prettily and then kissed him until he was snaking his hands under her top, reaching for the good stuff.
“I’ve gotta go, Lucky.”
“Ten more minutes.” He moaned, hard as rock.
“Uh-uh. Daddy’ll be home soon.”
“For Christ’s sake, Raylene, you’re twenty-eight years old. A grown woman.”
“You know how he is.” Yeah, Lucky knew Raylene’s old man. A prick and a bigot.
“Then go now. Because in another minute I’ll have you on your back.” She giggled, reminding Lucky of their teens, when she used to flirt with him mercilessly. Of course, then she’d been dating Zachary Baze, captain of the football team.
“When’s the divorce final?” he asked as she wiggled off of him.
“I’m not sure. Butch is being difficult.”
“What the hell does he have to be difficult about? He was screwing your best friend.”
She put her finger over his mouth. “Shush. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, I don’t like it, Raylene.” He wagged his hands between the two of them. “Going behind everyone’s back . . . It feels slimy.”
“What do you want me to do, Lucky? Divorces take time. Colorado isn’t California.”
Lucky didn’t know anything about the legalities of divorce in either state, but for the life of him he didn’t understand what the holdup was. Raylene and Butch had been legally separated for months now.
“I want this to be good between us. I want it to be right.” She bent down and kissed him again.
“It is good between us. And nothing has ever felt more right.”
“Yeah?” He stood up and wrapped her in his arms. “God, I love you, Raylene.”
“I love you too. But if I don’t get home . . .”
“Go then,” he said, patting her bottom. “When can I see you again?”
“Mama and I are taking a shopping trip to San Francisco this weekend. As soon as I get back.”
“While you’re there, get some clothes that cover you,” he said, staring at her ass—the same bubble butt that had filled those itty-bitty uniforms she’d worn while cheering for Nugget High. She bent over, letting her denim skirt ride up, giving him more than just a view of her behind. He dove for her, but Raylene darted away, laughing.
“They’ve got a name for girls like you.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” Raylene rucked up her tank top, making a big show of fondling the double D’s Butch had bought her. Apparently, the man hadn’t thought his wife’s natural breasts were big enough. Lucky had liked them just fine.
“I’m going now,” Raylene said, putting on one last peep show of her nether regions before racing out the door of the single-wide. A couple of ranch hands were sitting on the fence, taking a break. Lucky shot them a dirty look when they gaped at Raylene like she was a hooker.
“Call me when you get back, you hear?” he shouted. Raylene hopped up into her truck and peeled off. The girl had gone a little wild, but Lucky chalked it up to Butch keeping her on a string. She just needed a good man to give her the proper love and respect she deserved. Lucky’s phone vibrated inside his back pocket. Fishing it out, he checked the display and answered when he saw it was his agent.
“How’s the cowboy camp shaping up?”
“It’s coming along. I’d hoped to have it up and running by now. But we’ve run into a few glitches. Nothing insurmountable, though.”
After ten years on the road, living out of hotels, Lucky had purchased the property with plans to come home and settle here. As fate would have it, Raylene had come home too.
“That’s good,” Pete said. “Hey, I just wanted to give you a heads-up. A reporter for Sports Illustrated is interested in doing a profile on you before the world finals. I know you said you want to lie low for a while to recoup from that fall you took in Billings and to focus on your new business. But this sounds like a great opportunity.”
Lucky scratched his head. “Maybe I could give him an hour over the phone.” Not too many pro bull riders made it into the pages of Sports Illustrated.
“That’s the thing. He heard about your cowboy camp and how you’re raising rodeo stock up there in the California Sierras, and wants to come up and spend some time with you. He seems to think this new enterprise of yours is a good hook for his story.”
“First of all, it’s the Sierra. Singular. It means mountain range in Spanish.” People were always getting it wrong. “How long would he need? Because, Pete, it’s September. I was supposed to open in summer. If I want to get this camp off the ground, I don’t have a lot of time for schmoozing with a reporter.”
“I know. But, hey, being featured in Sports Illustrated . . . you can’t get better publicity than that.” True that.
“Yeah. All right. When does he want to come?”
“I’ll check with him and get back to you. Is there a place for him to stay or should I tell him to book a room in Reno?”
“We’ve got a five-star inn in downtown Nugget. The Lumber Baron. Besides, Reno is a good forty-five-minute drive.”
“Let me get a pen. I want to write that down.” In the background, Lucky could hear Pete digging through things. “What’s the hotel called again?”
“The Lumber Baron. Hold a sec and I’ll get you a contact.” Lucky searched his phone and ticked off the bed-and-breakfast’s number to Pete.
“Great. I’ll let him know and will talk to you soon.” Pete ended the call. Lucky needed the distraction of a reporter like he needed a hole in the head. Ordinarily, he never shied away from the press, loving the attention. But he was way behind schedule. Once the snow came—which could be any day now—it would slow construction. The bunkhouses still needed to be winterized and as it turned out, the lodge, which he’d originally thought to be in good shape, needed all kinds of electrical work. Then there was the fact that most city folk didn’t want to ride, rope, or wrestle steers in the freezing cold. Lucky hoped to attract Silicon Valley executives interested in using the ranch for corporate team building. At least in future winters he and the owners of the Lumber Baron planned to team up on various ventures.
The inn’s event planner, Samantha Dunsbury—now Breyer—wanted to rent out Lucky’s cowboy camp for weddings and other functions where the guests could indulge in their warped vision of ranch life—hayrides and barn dances.
It wasn’t exactly the rough-and-tumble cowboy camp he’d envisioned, but it would help pay some of the overhead on the ranch. Right now it was paid for with Lucky’s winnings from professional bull riding. But at twenty-nine, this would be his last year. He wasn’t getting those ninety- and ninety-five-point rides like he used to. Not with the bulls getting tougher every year. Not when he had a couple of inches of height and thirty to forty pounds on the average bull rider. He’d never been built right for the sport, but he’d had youth and vigor on his side. Now there were younger and stronger contenders. Lucky planned on the cowboy camp being his next chapter. That and raising prime rodeo stock.
So far, though, bull riding, despite the broken bones and bruises, was still paying the bills. He gazed across the ranch, a defunct camp used by church organizations, clubs, and schools for retreats. The place was still in a shambles and nowhere close to welcoming guests. But when he finally got the cowboy camp off the ground, a Sports Illustrated story would be good for business. Pete was right. Lucky couldn’t buy better advertising than that.
On his way to the lodge, a massive stack-stone and timber-log building that would serve as the camp’s combination mess hall and cantina, an old Jeep Cherokee crawled down his road. He didn’t recognize it as belonging to one of his workers. Then again, there were so many of them swarming the place, who could keep their vehicles straight? Lucky stood to the side of the single-wide, out of sight, shielding his eyes from the sun, as a woman climbed out of the driver’s seat. She headed to the trailer door and knocked. He continued to watch her, debating whether to see what she wanted or to scoot on up to the lodge. Occasionally, overzealous fans—usually women—showed up on his doorstep uninvited. Crazy as it was, just being on ESPN was enough to bring all kinds out of the woodwork.
Today, he wasn’t in the mood to send one of them packing. But the lady didn’t strike him as a groupie. Her clothes were too conservative, for one thing: a skirt that hit midcalf and a nice blouse. It was her boots, though, that caught his attention. Even from yards away he could tell they were quality. Not gaudy, but definitely expensive. And a good chance, custom-made. Not what you would expect from someone driving a beater car. His curiosity got the better of him and he made his presence known.
“Can I help you?”
She jerked up, like he’d caught her off guard, then just stood there staring up at him. Finally, he stuck out his hand.
“Lucky Rodriguez. Were you looking for me?”
The woman shuffled her feet in the dirt and cleared her throat. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“No, ma’am. Should I?”
She didn’t say anything, just let her eyes drop to those elegant boots of hers.
“Donna Thurston said you lived here now.” He nodded. It wasn’t a secret that he’d purchased the old Roland camp and had moved back to Nugget, even if Donna was the biggest mouth in town.
“Could we go inside?” she asked. Lucky hesitated, but the woman didn’t look particularly threatening. Hell, soaking wet she couldn’t weigh more than a hundred twenty pounds. There was something desperate about her though, like maybe she was looking for work.
“Yeah, come on in.” The door to his bedroom was open and the bed showed signs of his and Raylene’s recent lovemaking. He motioned to a ratty plaid couch and the woman took a seat while he chose the chair across from her.
“How can I help you, Miss . . . ?
“Tawny.” Something about her rang a vague bell with him. But after a few seconds of searching his brain, Lucky couldn’t place the name. She stared down at her hands, which were locked together like a fist.
“Would you like a drink?” Lucky asked.
“Water would be nice.” He got up, hunted through his cupboards for a decent glass, filled it from the tap, and brought it to her.
When she looked up he noticed that her eyes were green. They too sparked an elusive memory, but he still couldn’t quite pinpoint it. She was pretty enough that if they’d crossed paths he would’ve remembered. The boots too. On closer inspection, Lucky thought they were some of the finest leatherwork he’d ever seen. Lots of hand-tooled flowers and a monogram.
As a world-champion bull rider, Lucky knew good boots when he saw them. And those must’ve cost a boatload. Strange, because she gave off the vibe that she was down on her luck. Sad. And tired.
“So what can I do for you, Miss Tawny?”
“Just Tawny,” she said. “Tawny’s my first name.”
Didn’t tawny mean orange or brown? The thought popped into his head that her name should’ve been Jade, and again he got the distinct impression that he knew her from somewhere. He watched, waiting for her to state her business, then grew impatient when she just sat there.
“You looking for work, Tawny?”
She jerked her head in surprise. “No. Why would you think that?”
Clearly, he’d insulted her, though he didn’t know why. Nothing shameful about needing work. Until Lucky had made it big riding the rodeo circuit, he took any job that came his way, to put food on the table. His mother’s wages working at the Rock and River Ranch had never been enough.
“Unless you’re looking for rodeo stock, I can’t imagine what else I could do for you,” he said.
“My daughter needs a stem cell transplant,” she blurted. “I need your stem cells.”
Lucky registered surprise. That was a new one. As a high-profile athlete, he’d been asked for a good many things. Autographs, pictures, bull-riding lessons, and yes, even bodily fluids. But never once had anyone requested his cells. The woman was clearly a nut job. He rose from his chair, walked to the door, and held it open for her. He wanted to tell her to have Donna lose his address, but tried to remain as polite as possible.
“I think you’ve got the wrong cowboy, ma’am.” She didn’t budge.
“I’ll go to your mother then.”
“My mother? What does she have to do with this?” Where the hell did this broad get off?
“Katie has acute myeloid leukemia,” Tawny said, and her bottom lip trembled. “The chemotherapy didn’t work. The radiation didn’t work and the cancer is back. You’re my only hope.”
Lucky stood by the door, wondering if she was just trying to scam him for money. She certainly wouldn’t be the first. But his earlier assessment that she was crazy seemed more on the mark.
“How’s that?” he asked, unable to help himself.
“Your HLA antigens have the best chance of matching Katie’s.”
Oh yeah, she was loco all right, and he’d just been beamed into an episode of Star Trek. “Katie’s your daughter?”
“Yes.” Tawny sniffled, and Lucky went into the bathroom and grabbed her a roll of toilet paper. It probably wasn’t smart turning his back on her, but the woman was crying. He shouldn’t, but asked anyway.
“How old is she?”
“Nine.” Tawny locked eyes with him long and hard, like the kid’s age should’ve meant something to him. It was slightly unnerving, because when she did that she looked saner than shit.
“And you think I might have these special . . . What did you call them?”
“Right,” he said. “And that would be . . . uh . . . because I ride bulls for a living?”
“No.” She stood up. “That would be because you’re her father.”
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