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“No worries.” Cash’s gaze strayed and Chase knew what—who—had caught his attention.


Chase smiled at her approach. “Cash and Ryder Big Crow, this is my friend Ava. She’s here to help me out.”


Cash’s smile didn’t falter, but something passed through his eyes as he offered his hand. “Ava. Nice to meet you.”


“Man, my mama will be happy you’re here,” Ryder said. “She always complains there ain’t never enough girls.”


Ava laughed. “I can’t wait to meet her.”


“Let’s see about getting you two settled in the bunkhouse.”


“Come on, it’s this way,” Ryder said, taking off at a run.


“You sure it isn’t an imposition for me to stay here, Mr. Big Crow?”


“Call me Cash.” He slung Ava’s duffle over his shoulder as they started to walk. “No. We’ve got room. Without sounding like a prude… Since our kids are around and curious as little monkeys, I’m afraid I’ll insist you two stay in separate sides of the bunkhouse.”


“That’s fine,” Chase inserted. “Me’n Ava are just friends.”


“Yes, just friends,” Ava reiterated. “I’ve never been out West and Chase is my tour guide in exchange for my videotaping skills.”


“That’s smart, havin’ a record of your rides so you can go back and look at them.” Cash said.


“Hey, every little thing helps, right?”


“Right. We’ll get started in the mornin’ after I finish chores.”


“Sounds good. When is Colby coming?”


“Day after tomorrow when the stock is scheduled to arrive. Might be a long couple days for you, Chase, with the amount of stock I’d like you to test out.”


“I can’t wait. Seems I’ve been in a holding pattern for too long.”


Cash nodded. “It’ll be good to find your seat again.”


Then Ryder was jumping up and down in front of them. “Can I help ya pick a bunk? Please?”


“Sure. But no top bunk, okay?”


“’Kay,” and he was off like a shot.


“Ryder is a little enthusiastic about you bein’ here, if you haven’t noticed.” Cash glanced at Ava. “Any questions?”


“One that I hope isn’t too weird.”


“Shoot.”


“Does the bunkhouse have Wi-Fi?”


“Yep. Them young bucks that come here can’t be away from the cyber world for two whole weeks.”


A planked porch ran in front of the bunkhouse. Two doors denoted the two sides. One door was open and Ryder popped his head out. “Got it all picked out!”


“Cool beans.” Chase ducked inside. The room was rustic. No air conditioning. No running water. A ceiling fan spun above and another fan placed in front of the window pulled cool air from outside. “This is a great place, Cash. Same set up on the other side?”


“Yeah. A communal bathroom with showers on the back side.”


“You really have sixteen bull riders here at a time?”


“We’re always booked, since I only have sessions four times a year.”


Ryder sat on the bed farthest from the window. “I’m hopin’ maybe my dad will let me sleep out here on this bunk tonight?”


“Nope.” Cash held up his hand and Ryder’s protest died before it began.


Chase wandered to the other side of the bunkhouse to see how Ava was faring. He doubted she’d ever stayed in a place like this.


But she’d picked a bunk and set the lamp on the table, closer to the window.


“How’s it goin’ in here?”


Ava whirled around. “Great! I feel like I’m at camp. I might sneak a flashlight and read under the covers tonight just to make the experience complete.”


Cash stuck his head in. “Anything you need, Ava, just let Gemma know.”


“I’ll keep that in mind, Cash, thanks.”


“I need to do a quick cattle check if you wanna ride along,” Cash said to Chase.


“And open gates for you,” Chase said dryly.


“Yep.”


“Can I come?” Ava asked. “I’d be happy to open gates.”


“The more the merrier.” Cash patted Ryder’s shoulder. “Come on, son, load up the dogs.”


Ava asked a million questions, none of them the invasive ones ranchers hate, such as: how many head of cattle do you run, or what’s the size of your acreage. She and Cash had been so engrossed in conversation Chase had gotten stuck opening gates. But he didn’t mind. With Ava focused on listening to Cash, he could focus on her.


Beautiful, vivacious, funny, he wondered if she ever felt out of place. She slipped into any situation with ease. Although he tried to ignore the voice of reason that reminded him Of course she adapts easily because she’s an actress, Chase couldn’t discount it completely. Still, Ava seemed genuine. She hadn’t batted an eye at crawling in Cash’s dirty feed truck. He’d even caught her ruffling the dog’s ears as she’d talked to Ryder. The woman absolutely knocked him for a loop. She was unlike any woman he’d ever met.


Why was that? He’d been involved with beautiful women before. Did he find Ava so appealing because they’d agreed to just be friends? He didn’t try to be charming just so he could get into her pants? He could really be himself? Chase had racked his brain trying to remember if he’d ever been just friends with a woman. Not in the last decade, that was for damn sure. Yet, he knew if he gave the signal, she’d be all over him and their budding friendship would end.


See? That’s your problem. You automatically put her in the role of the aggressor—even when the choice to change the parameters of your relationship…is yours.


Was he really that passive when it came to sex?


Yes.


Ben’s advice, Be a man, still rankled. Mostly because it was true.


Hard to swallow, that he wasn’t as aggressive in all areas of his life as when he was on the back of a bull.


But right now, for the next few days, his time spent on a bull was all that mattered.


Later that night, a cool breeze drifting from the window, the sound of crickets and the occasional garbled hoot from an owl lulled Chase to sleep.


A series of loud knocks jolted him from slumber. The door creaked as he peeled his eyes open.


“Chase? Are you awake?”


“I am now,” he grumbled. “What’s up?”


Rapid footsteps on wood were his only warning before Ava jumped on him.


“What the hell?” She burrowed into him, shaking from head to toe. “What’s wrong?”


“I’m scared. I kept hearing these weird noises. Things brushing against the side of the bunkhouse under my window. Then this spooky howling started, followed by the most god-awful shriek. And I thought, what if it’s a mountain lion and it jumps right through the open window to attack me?”


“Hey now, take a couple of deep breaths.” Chase tucked her into his body, pulling the blanket over them, lightly running his fingertips up and down her spine.


Her chest pressed against his as she inhaled. A soft puff of air teased his chest when she exhaled.


As she concentrated on breathing, her tremors slowed. And finally stopped. She snuggled into him and he couldn’t resist brushing his lips across the top of her head.


They remained entwined for several long minutes.


She spoke first. “You probably think I’m a wuss.”


“You? A wuss? Ain’t you the woman who threatened to kick my ass just a couple days ago while you were buck-ass nekkid?”


“It was a bluff. I was scared out of my mind, seeing a strange guy in my room, and I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.”


His hand stopped the stroking motion on her back. “So you don’t have a black belt in taekwondo?”


“No. I once played a character who rocked at martial arts. I trained the minimum amount so it’d look like a pro onscreen.” She paused. “You really thought I could hurt you?”


“Yes. Damn fine actin’ job, Hollywood.”


“Well, I am a professional.”


He chuckled.


Ava rubbed her cheek against his pectoral. “Thanks for not laughing at me, Chase.”


“I’m not that kinda guy.” He started caressing her back again. “That said, please don’t ever use your actin’ talent on this gullible cowboy, okay?”


She lifted her head and said, “I won’t,” then snuggled into him.


Chase closed his eyes, enjoying Ava’s soft curves melting into him and smelling her orange blossom scented lotion. After he’d seen the bottle in the bathroom at Kane’s place, he told himself he wasn’t perverted if he picked it up and sniffed it a couple of times.


“So have you told any of your LA friends about your big adventure out west?”


“No one to tell.”


“Really?”


“Sounds weird. You’d think I’d have a multitude of friends, right? Since I’m a Native Californian, a TV actress, a tabloid target. Ooh, and let’s not forget a rich girl.” She shifted slightly, almost as if she intended to get up.


Chase pressed his palm between her shoulder blades as a sign he didn’t want her to run out, and surprisingly, that seemed to calm her. “So why are you rolling in dough but not friends?”


“It’s complicated.”


“I got nowhere to be, darlin’, so why don’t you help me understand.”


She struggled for a minute before she spoke. “The girls I went to school with are all married with families or they’re focused on their careers. It’s gotten harder and harder to connect with them. Other actresses are so damn competitive that I’m never sure of their motivations for befriending me because it’s always—and I mean always—been for some shady reason. Not to mention the blatant remarks about how I don’t need to work as an actress since I’ve got money in the bank, and I should just bow out and make room for them.”

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