Then again, morning wouldn’t come earlier whether he stayed home or if he checked out the action at the Golden Boot.

Cord slipped on his going-to-town boots and dress hat, grabbed his keys and his wallet and made the trek into town, knowing in his present mood a run-in with either Colt or AJ spelled trouble.

Chapter Fourteen

“I’m thinking of hiring a stripper for my bachelorette party.”

AJ spun the bar stool with an arch look. “Male?”

“Well, duh.”

“Where are you gonna find a male stripper in this town?”

Liza smirked. “I have my sources.”

“Come on, Liza, spill it.”

“Rumor has it a couple of the male strippers who travel to the venues between Cheyenne, Billings and Rapid City have been killing time in the area.”

“Killing time with who? And how come you didn’t tell me this before now?”

“Because I just found out last night and you haven’t been hanging out with me. A sad, sad fact, because I’m about to become an old married lady.”

AJ waved down the bartender for another draft beer.

“Whatcha been doin’?” Liza stirred the Jack and Coke before taking a hefty sip from the striped straw.

Answering— screwing around—although accurate, was not an option. “My sister left her husband. She and her kids moved in with Ma and me. Which is ironic, because mom sold the ranch and she’ll be moving as soon as she’s able.”

“Then you are going back to Denver?”

AJ nodded.

Liza squeezed AJ’s hand. “That sucks. I’m sorry. That mean you won’t be living here at all?”

“Who knows? Once I graduate I’ll actually have a way to support myself, since the

‘princess and knight’ scenario we dreamed up in third grade hasn’t panned out for either of us.”

“Speak for yourself. Noah treats me like a princess even if he is welding armor rather than wearing it.”

“True. I am happy for you, Liza. How did we get sidetracked from the stripper story?

Who’s flashing their butt for bucks?”

“Have you talked to Keely? Will she be here for the bachelorette party?”

“Shoot. I forgot to ask her.” That was an odd question. Out of the blue. “Why?”

Liza started chomping on her straw, a sure sign of distress. When they’d been in school, by the end of the year everything in Liza’s pencil box looked as if beavers had gnawed on it. “Along the rumor vein…I heard if Colt McKay has enough to drink he’ll start stripping. Doesn’t care where, or when, if it’s a private gig or right out in public.”

“Holy crap, Liza, you weren’t thinking of hiring him for your party?”

“God, no. But that’s the thing. He’s been everywhere with that female stripper and the male stripper I’m considering is a coworker of hers. Colt is a party crasher. Keely would freak if she saw firsthand some of the rank stuff he’s been doing.”

AJ hadn’t heard anything out of the norm where Colt was concerned, besides him hitting the bottle hard. “I’m sure she can’t make it because of tests. A stripper? Really, Liza? Why?”

“Because I’ve always been the goody-two-shoes-girl-next-door. Just once, I’m dying to throw an outrageous party that’ll be the talk of the county for ten years. I want everyone to say, ‘Hey, remember Liza’s bachelorette bash? Now that was one helluva wild time!’ instead of tea and cookies and stupid bridal shower games.”

AJ empathized. Neither she nor Liza craved the attention wild child Keely McKay garnered without trying, but once in a while—or once in a lifetime in Liza’s case—it’d be fun to shatter perceptions about shy girls and cut loose in a way that’d leave Keely’s mouth hanging open in shock.


“I’m in. You need help planning it?”

“Some. I’ve rented the backroom. My sister and I are making the food.” A mischievous smile appeared. “Cocktail weenies, brats, Rocky Mountain Oysters, meatballs. We’re gonna have a brat sucking and ball licking contest. And we went online and ordered a bunch of really raunchy party favors.”

“Ooh, we’ve gotta have an official drink. Something super sweet with a naughty name and you won’t know you’ve had too much to drink until it’s too late. Wyoming Doodle Whacker.”

“Ooh. I like that one.”

“Who’da thunk wild women lurked beneath our pigtails and bootcut 501s a few short years ago?”

“Not the guys in our class who voted us ‘bland and blander’. There will be something very satisfying about flipping them the bird, and slamming the door in their faces because at this party no men are allowed.”

For the next hour AJ and Liza made lists, planned and laughed. Noah finished his dart league and squired Liza away, leaving AJ to fend for herself.

Not for long.

She was dancing with Mikey when Cord waltzed in. She didn’t acknowledge him, since she suspected the reverse was true. AJ danced and hung out with her friends, feeling melancholy about not having many nights like this left in her hometown.

Her cell phone rang. She hustled down the hallway away from the music to try and hear Keely, but it was pointless. She turned around and saw Cord blocking the exit.

Lord. The man defined bad-boy rancher hottie, the ultimate man, in her opinion. The real deal, not some cowboy wannabe. His muscles were earned from hours of hard, physical work, not hours spent pumping iron at the gym. His steely-eyed determination was honed from spending years fighting the elements. She suppressed a soft sigh. He wore a pressed cotton shirt the color of vine-ripened tomatoes, which emphasized his

‘black Irish’ dark good looks, crisp jeans and a straw hat. He probably smelled great too, like shaving cream and soap and the great outdoors.

Shoot. She had no experience with this stuff either. Did she ignore him? Play it cool?

Play it like a bitch on wheels? Pretend she hadn’t waited at his house for over an hour for him and he never bothered to call and cancel?

While she argued with herself about an appropriate response, he said, “You didn’t show up tonight.”

“Wrong. I waited for you but you didn’t show up.”

“So you came to the Golden Boot instead?”

“What’s it to you what I do?” Childish, AJ. “I figured you had other plans so I made some of my own. No big deal. It’s not like we’re going steady.”

His jaw went rigid. “Wrong. You broke the rules. Which means you’ve earned another penalty.”

“Put it on my bill with the other ones.”

He gestured to her phone with a jerk of his hat brim. “Who’re you talkin’ to?”

She blinked at him.


“My stockbroker. My Microsoft stock took a huge hit today.”

“You’re a real riot, AJ. Who were you talkin’ to?”

“You gonna keep asking me until I tell you?”


“Fine. I was trying to talk to Keely. But don’t worry, I didn’t say a thing about you or the incredible sex we had the other night.” Crap. That hadn’t come out right.

Cord tipped his hat back. No smile, just a smug look. “Incredible, huh?”

“You know it was. You don’t need to get cocky about it because there won’t be a repeat performance tonight. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

“You ain’t goin’ no place. Get your stuff and be out by my truck in five minutes.”



“Is there an echo in here? I said no. You had your chance to be with me tonight. You blew it. Better luck tomorrow.”

“Don’t push me, baby doll.”

“Then get out of my way. Unless you want me to really push you aside and make a scene?”

A hard expression flattened his lips.

“Didn’t think so.” She sidestepped him and strutted to the bar.

Nice goin’ McKay. You handled that like a fuckin’ pro.

Jesus. That smartypants blond was so gonna get it when he got his hands on her.

He’d stick around and see what other trouble she caused, see if she provided reasons to add to her punishments.

Cord snagged a corner table near the dance floor, where he could watch the entrance, the exits and her every move. Perverted? Yep. But if she took off, he’d know it. Just as well as he knew he’d chase her down—and guaranteed there’d be hell to pay when he caught her.

He nursed a beer, keeping a mental tally of who AJ danced with and how many times. Obsessive? Yep. A feeling which didn’t bother him in the least.

A couple of his dad’s friends swung by to congratulate him on buying the Foster place. He shot a covert glance at AJ to see if she’d figured out why so much traffic passed his table.

He shooed the guys off instead of discussing his plans for the new McKay acquisition. With AJ within earshot it seemed disrespectful. Not only that, he didn’t want anyone in the community believing the Fosters had fallen on hard times and had no choice but to sell. Cord knew how much it’d bug him if local folks made such assumptions about him or his family or the way they ran their operation. Gossip ruled in Crook County and the men were just as bad as the ladies.

Kade strolled in, snagged a beer and slipped into the booth seat across from him.

“How’s it goin’?”

“Shitty. You?”


“Where’s Kane?”

“Who the hell knows?” Kade fiddled with the metal tab on his beer can. “Did you hear I moved out of the Boars Nest?”

“No. I was a little fuckin’ busy mowin’ the goddamn south hayfield for the last couple of days to indulge in idle conversation.”

“By yourself?”

Cord nodded.

“Shit. Sorry. I woulda been over to help you, if I’da known.” Kade fished his can of Skoal bandits from his front pocket, shook out a pouch and passed the can across the table.