May 26, 2009
Lone Star Sisters, Book No. 2
The love of her life is back in Texas after eight long years. Wait till he meets her eight-year-old daughter!
Skye Titan's wealthy father thinks he can still dictate his daughter's choice in men. Now widowed and a single mother, Skye isn't the yes-girl she once was. Especially since the love of her life is back in Texas after eight long years. He won't like the answers to the questions he's asking. About why she left him at the altar. And about her eight-year-old daughter.
Former Navy SEAL Mitch Cassidy comes home to find nearly everything different. His wounds from battle have changed the way people treat him. His cattle ranch is suddenly organic. But time hasn't touched his desire for Skye--or the sting of her betrayal. Forget lip service. He's asking that luscious mouth of hers to reveal the truth. But will Mitch be able to put the past aside to help Skye get out from under her father's thumb… and help himself recover from a broken heart?
Coffee Time Romance
“Fast paced writing and compelling characters… a story that will hold your interest and is guaranteed to have you sneaking in a few chapters whenever you get a few minutes.”
Romance Reviews Today
“An amazing cast of characters and an extremely powerful and potent love story as only Susan Mallery can write!”
Marilyn’s Romance Reviews
“I absolutely love sitting down with a Mallery novel.”
The Romance Readers Connection
"The follow-up to last month's Under Her Skin fleshes out the family dynamics and re-introduces lost loves ... Mallery breathes real life into these former lovers hoping for a second chance."
RT Book Reviews
“I’d like you to marry my daughter.”
Skye Titan was having enough trouble balancing a small tray with two drinks and a plate of appetizers in one hand while reaching for the study door with the other. A sudden inability to breathe only complicated the stability problem.
Thirty or so seconds ago she would have thought that nothing her father said could surprise her anymore. She would have been wrong.
Talk about humiliating, she thought, wondering if Jed Titan’s statement was meant to buy a son-in-law or sell a daughter. With him, she couldn’t be sure.
“Izzy?” the other man asked, his voice clearly audible, despite the thick door between them.
Skye waited impatiently.
“Oh?” Was that the best he could do? Annoyance grew as time ticked on.
“I guess that would work, too,” he said at last.
Skye practically growled in irritation. Words to make her heart beat faster for sure. How was she going to keep from throwing herself at T.J. Boone when she walked into the study? How romantic. How caring. How seductive.
If she had been any less the well-trained hostess, not to mention a dutiful daughter, she would have pushed open the door, tossed the drinks in both their faces and left the house, never to be heard from again.
“Egotistical jackass bastard,” she muttered, not sure if she meant the insult for T.J. or her father. They both deserved it.
She forced herself to breathe slowly, then imagined herself sinking into the big tub in the bathroom off her bedroom. Bubbles up to her chin, a glass of white wine to take off the edge. She was calm and in control. She was going to do the right thing, because that’s who she was. The good girl, dammit. The one who served drinks to men like T.J. and her father.
Skye opened the door to the study and stepped inside the room. The two men stood next to the pool table. Jed didn’t bother acknowledging her while T.J. looked momentarily uncomfortable. As if he wondered if she’d heard him condemn her with faint praise.
She smiled as she offered the successful businessman his drink, wishing she’d thought to spit in it first.
“T.J.,” she said.
He was good-looking, in a blond, blue-eyed sort of way. Tall and well-dressed. He was a Texas boy and was probably charming, but it was hard to notice when the unenthusiastic “I guess that would work, too” was bouncing around in her brain.
She set the appetizers on the table in the corner. “Is there anything else, Daddy?” she asked.
“That’s all, Skye.”
“Then I’ll say good-night.”
Her hostess duties completed, her temper still firing, albeit silently, she left the room and walked to the stairs. Once on the third floor, she made her way to the last room on the left. During the day it was a bright open space done in primary colors. A big bed sat by the window overlooking the main pasture. At night shadows closed in, but seven year-old Erin was never afraid of the dark. She wasn’t afraid of anything. A quality she must have inherited from her father, Skye thought enviously.
Now Erin lay sleeping, a tiny curled up bump under the covers. Skye sat on the edge of the bed and stared down at her child.
“I love you, Bunny Face,” she whispered.
Erin didn’t stir.
Skye rose and walked the few feet to her own bedroom. Her younger-by-a-year sister Izzy sprawled on the big bed, watching television. She muted the sound when Skye entered.
“Don’t you have a TV in your own room?” Skye asked.
“Sure, but using yours is more fun. Who’s the guy?”
“T.J. Boone. You’re the one he wants.”
Izzy sat up, her dark curly hair a halo around her head. “What are you talking about?”
Skye walked to the bathroom and turned on the tub. While water thundered out, she poured in jasmine scented bath oil that foamed and made bubbles.
“Jed told T.J. that he’d like him to marry his daughter. T.J. asked if Jed meant Izzy and when he was informed I was the daughter being auctioned off, he paused for a very long time before agreeing that I would do.” Skye returned to the bedroom, then swore softly. “Did I remember to bring up a big bottle of wine? Of course not.”
Izzy bounced to her feet. “What are you talking about? Of course he wants you. You’re gorgeous.”
That was stretching it, but Skye wasn’t going to refuse the compliment.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said with a sigh. “I’m not letting Jed pick a husband for me. Been there, done that.”
“Bought the T-shirt,” Izzy added helpfully.
She’d done more than that. She’d married the man in question because it was what her father wanted. Because it was the right thing to do, or so it had seemed. Archaic, maybe, but right.
“I have a backbone,” Skye said feeling dissatisfied with her life and not clear on why. “I’m sure of it. If I didn’t have a backbone, I couldn’t walk upright. I’m twenty-six years old, a widow and single mother. Shouldn’t I be the one running my life?”
“You are,” Izzy said, then shrugged. “Sort of.”
“How wonderful. I’m a role model for doormats everywhere.”
“You’re not a doormat.”
Skye shook her head. “Sorry. This should be a pity party for one. I didn’t mean to include you. Why don’t you go downstairs and flaunt yourself in front of T.J.? Show him what he’ll never have.”
Izzy frowned. “Are you okay? I can stay and keep you company.”
“No, thanks. I’m going to take a bath where I’ll be floating in a sea of denial.” Because her bad mood was just because of T.J.’s obvious rejection. It wasn’t as if she was interested in him or any man. It was her father assuming once again he could control her life. Because she’d let him...more than once.
“Sk-ye.” Izzy drew the word out into two syllables. “Don’t make me sing ‘The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow’ until you beg for mercy, because I will.”
Skye laughed. “Okay. I’ll be good. Now run along and make trouble. We’ll both feel better for it. I’ll be fine. I just need to get some sleep. Everything will look better in the morning.”
Izzy hesitated, then left. Skye returned to the bathroom and turned off the water. She pinned up her hair, then undressed and climbed into the tub. But no matter how she closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, she kept hearing the conversation between T.J. and Jed. And kept getting mad. Mostly at herself. For being the kind of person who did what she was told.
Because she was the good sister. The one who followed the rules. Who did the expected.
“I hate people like that,” she said aloud into the empty room. So when had she become one of them?
Izzy waited until T.J. stepped out onto the front porch of the house. She’d grown up lurking in shadows, spying on her older sisters who seemed to have all the fun. She was used to being stealthy.
When she was sure he hadn’t noticed her, she crept up behind him and said, “Hi,” in a loud voice. It was hard not to laugh when he jumped.
“Jesus,” he yelled as he turned. “You scared me.”
“Good. I understand we’re soon to be brother and sister. That’s very cool. I’ve always wanted an older brother. You can teach me all kinds of things.”
T.J. stood a good ten inches taller than her, but Izzy wasn’t the least bit intimidated. She wasn’t there to fight fair and would use every advantage to bring the jerk to his knees. Scaring him had just been a happy bonus.
“Brother and sister?”
“You’re marrying Skye, aren’t you?”
T.J. swore, this time more aggressively. “She heard. I didn’t mean for her to.”
He was standing at the top of the stairs. Izzy thought about giving him a big push, just for the thrill of watching him tumble. “You hesitated when Jed offered you Skye, you tiny-dicked little moron. You had to think about it. She’s worth ten of you. Diss her again and I’ll have you shot.”
“Wait a minute. My hesitation wasn’t about Skye. She’s a beautiful woman. I was making a point with your father.” He leaned against the post by the stairs. “And for future reference, I’ve never had complaints about the size of my equipment.”
“Most women are too polite to complain in person. We only tell each other when we’re disappointed.”
He raised a blond eyebrow. “You have sass.”
“I have a lot of things you’ll never see.”
“Want to bet?”
Izzy liked that he gave as good as he got, but not that he was hanging with Jed, talking about marrying Skye and flirting with her.
“Jed won’t take kindly to you playing his daughters against each other. Trust me, he’s not a man you want to piss off.”
“Maybe he doesn’t care which of his daughters I marry.”
“You couldn’t catch me and even if you could, you couldn’t handle me.”
“I’d like to try.”
She faked a yawn. “I’m sure you would. Hurt my sister again, T.J. and looking eye to eye with a snake will seem like a step up for you.”
He stared at her feet, then worked his way up. “You think you could take me?”
“Even on a bad day. I fight dirty.”
“So do I, little girl.”
She filed that piece of information away for future reference. “I’ll be reporting our little conversation to my sister. The Titan girls are very loyal to each other. You won’t be able to play us against each other.”
“You’re full of advice. What makes you think I need it?”
“You have amateur written all over you.”
Mitch Cassidy pulled to a stop at the entrance to the ranch. Although he’d grown up here, he hadn’t been back in nearly nine years. He’d expected a few changes—life had a way of moving forward whether he wanted it to or not—but not this.
He stared at the words over the open metal gates. The gates, connected to nothing, were just there for show. “Cassidy Ranch. Home of certified organic beef and free-range poultry.”
“What the hell?”
He wasn’t sure what offended him the most. The phrase “certified organic” or the word “poultry.”
“Chickens? We have goddamn chickens?”
He hated chickens. They were loud and messy and this was Texas. His family ran beef. They had for nearly a hundred years. It was the source of the considerable Cassidy fortune. If some ranch wife wanted to raise a few chickens for eggs or deep frying, the stupid birds were kept out of sight and never talked about. They weren’t bragged about in a sign.
His left foot ached. He reached down to rub it only to remember a half-second later that he didn’t have a left foot anymore. The below the knee amputation was the reason he wasn’t a SEAL these days. It was the reason he’d finally come home.
He swore again, put the truck in drive and headed for the main house. In a perfect world, he would quietly reappear at the ranch, easing into a normal life, without anyone noticing. Life was a lot of things, but it wasn’t perfect.
He drove down the nearly mile long private road. White fences lined both sides. There were horses on the right and prize bulls on the left. Prosperity on the hoof.
He rounded a curve, past a grove of trees and saw the house where he’d grown up. IT was a sprawling two-story structure with a wrap-around porch. Flowers grew waist high, swaying gently in the breeze. It could have been a picture from a postcard. Mitch almost wished it was.
Fidela stood on the porch, straining forward, as if wanting to know the second he arrived. She took off at a run toward the truck, forcing him to stop short of the house.
She might be pushing fifty, but she had the speed of a six year-old and got to him before he’d awkwardly clambered out of the truck. He landed on gravel and nearly lost his balance as his legs muscles struggled to keep him upright on his new and painful prosthetic.
“You’re back!” she said, tears filling her brown eyes. “Finally. I’ve been praying and praying since you left. God is tired of me asking for your safety. You could have helped, you know. Not done such dangerous work. But no. You like to test my faith.”
She cupped his face, then ran her hands across his shoulders and down his arms, as if wanting to make sure he was real.
“You’re taller since you left, but so thin. Mitch, such sadness in your eyes. But you’re home now, yes? Home with me and Arturo. The ranch will heal you and I will cook all your favorites until you are too fat to ride a horse.”
She smiled through her tears, then hugged him with a fierce strength that squeezed the air out of him.
She’d been a part of his life since before he was born. Arturo had brought her to the ranch as his young bride. She’d helped his mother and Arturo had managed the ranch. His parents had never enjoyed staying in one place for very long, and when they’d left on their many trips, Arturo and Fidela had been the ones to take care of him.
He hugged her back, slowly, tentatively, remembering and wanting to forget at the same time. He was careful to focus on staying balanced, with his center of gravity where it was supposed to be. All the easy things he’d once taken for granted.
“I made enchiladas and beans the way you like. There’s pie and flan and all your favorite foods. Your room is ready, on the main floor. Just for now, though. That is what the doctor said when he called. Just for now.”
Mitch wondered what else the doctor had said. Mitch knew he’d been a difficult patient. He wasn’t interested in all the bullshit about how things happened for a reason and even when God closed a door, He opened a window. Mitch wasn’t interested in a window. He wanted his life back the way it had been before the explosion that had taken off the bottom half of his left leg.
“I gotta go,” he said, pushing away from Fidela and returning to the truck. “I’ll be back.”
She stared at him, her mouth trembling with an emotion he didn’t want to identify. Pity, most likely. And why not?
He slammed the driver’s door and started the engine. He didn’t know where he was going—as long as it was away from here.
He circled the barn and followed the dirt road toward the pastures. The fencing was new and in good repair. To his right he saw something that looked suspiciously like a whole lot of chickens, so he stared straight ahead until he’d crested a rise. From there he could see Cassidy land and the dark shadows that were the cattle. At this distance, the changes wouldn’t be so noticeable.
He got out of the truck, then winced when he took a step. His stump ached. He’d done too much, too fast, ignoring the advice from his doctor and therapists. He was supposed to get used to the prosthetic over time, to use crutches or a walker. Not that he would.
He limped over to a big rock and sat down, then pulled up his jeans and unhooked the plastic and metal replacing what had once been flesh and bone.
His knee was all banged up, scared and still red in places. The field surgeon in Afghanistan had done his best to save Mitch’s leg, or at least what had been left of it. For that Mitch would always be grateful. Not happy, exactly, but grateful.
He hurt everywhere and on the days when he didn’t want to bother getting out of bed he reminded himself compared to a lot of soldiers, all he had was a scratch and he needed to get over it. His buddy, Pete, has risked his life to drag Mitch to safety and had gotten shot for his efforts. So Mitch owed him, too. There were...
The sound of steady hoofs caught his attention. He started to stand, remembered too late he was missing a foot and nearly fell over. He grabbed for the rock and managed to stay upright. But before he could strap his prosthetic back in place, a horse and rider joined him on the rocky ledge.
Mitch stared at the one person in all the world he never wanted to see again. Did it have to be now? With him holding his fake leg in one hand? Did he have to look like the cripple he was?
Anger welled up inside of him. Living, hot anger that wanted to explode and burn and destroy.
“Get the hell off my land,” he growled. “You’re not welcome here.”
“Hello, Mitch,” she said, not acknowledging his order. “I’d heard you were coming back.”
Skye Titan drew her horse to a halt, slid off the saddle and onto the ground. She pulled off her cowboy hat.
Despite the years that had passed, she looked exactly as he remembered. Her dark red hair contrasted with her pale skin. Eyes the color of spring grass stared into his. She looked good. Too good, all curves and temptation.
“How are you?” she asked.
He waved the prosthetic. “How do you think I am? Go away. You’re not anyone I want to talk to.”
She wore jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, one that hugged her breasts in a way that irritated him even more.
“I don’t think I’m leaving just yet,” she said. “Apparently you can’t make me.”
“Nice,” he muttered. His gaze dropped to her left hand and didn’t see a ring. “What happened to husband number one? Daddy tell you to dump him?”
“Ray died,” she said, her gaze never leaving his.
“Living life as the rich widow or has Jed married you off again? Who is it this time, Skye? An old tycoon or some international banker?”
The Mitch Cassidy Skye remembered had been a funny, easy-going guy who rode like the wind and could kiss her senseless in a matter of seconds. He laughed as hard as he played and Mitch had loved to play. She knew war changed a man, but she hadn’t expected him to be a cold, mean stranger. His crack about a second arranged married hit close and hard. She took a step back.
“I’m sorry about your injury,” she said.
“I’ll sleep better knowing that.”
“Is the sarcastic bastard act specifically for me, or are you sharing it with everyone?”
He turned his back on her.
She supposed that was an answer of sorts, even if she wasn’t sure of the specifics.
She’d missed him, she thought sadly, staring at the familiar broad shoulders. His dark hair was military short, which suited him. The scar on the side of his jaw wasn’t one she remembered and she remembered everything about Mitch’s body.
He’d been her first love, her first lover and there had been a time when she would have walked through fire to be with him. But she hadn’t been willing to defy her father. Had that been a mistake?
“I wish things had been different,” she said, before she could stop herself. She meant the past, but when he spun toward her, his eyes narrowed, his mouth a thin line, she realized he thought she was talking about his leg.
“I don’t need your pity,” he growled. “I don’t need sh—”
He lost his balance and started to go down. Skye reacted instinctively, springing toward him. She grabbed him around the waist as he reached for the rocks. The prosthetic dropped to the ground.
He was heavier than she’d anticipated and the weight of him knocked her sideways. Her foot slipped. She scrambled to stay upright, then they were both falling
The ground was hard. She landed on her back, him on top of her. Rocks jabbed her but that didn’t matter. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t draw in air and the world spun.
Mitch was off her in a second. “Breathe,” he said, propped up next to her. “You’re fine. Just breathe.”
She sucked in a breath, then another.
“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded. “You’re too small and weak to hold me up. What did you think you were doing?”
He looked furious, which was oddly better than cold and sarcastic.
“I’m not weak,” she told him. “I could so kick your ass.”
“On what planet?”
One corner of his mouth twitched. “Don’t, Skye. Don’t try to make this okay.”
Because it wasn’t or he didn’t want it to be? “I missed you, Mitch.”
The humor faded and the coldness returned. “You should have thought about that before you dumped me.”
“I didn’t have a choice.”
“Sure you did. Daddy asked you to jump and you got out the ruler to make sure it was high enough.”
She sat up. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“How much did I get wrong?”
Nothing and that’s what annoyed her. “Mitch, please.”
They were both sitting, facing each other. She could see all the colors that made up his irises, the individual hairs of his lashes. The scent of him was familiar as was the heat rising inside of her.
He was so different, yet she recognized every part of him. It was as if the nearly nine years between them vanished and there was only this moment and the man she had once loved with a desperation that had left her weak.
“Mitch,” she breathed, then grabbed him by the front of his shirt, closed the space between them and kissed him.
For a moment, there was nothing. Just the feel of his lips against hers, but no reaction. She pressed harder, wanting him to want her, wanting him to respond. When he didn’t, she knew she’d made a mistake. That whatever she’d been longing for, it had been on her side alone. He hadn’t missed her at all.
She drew back.
Heat climbed her cheeks. She released him and started to get to her feet.
He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her down next to him. He leaned over her until she was forced to sink onto the ground.
“There is no way this is going to happen,” he told her.
Then he kissed her. His mouth moved on hers, all desperation, taking and claiming.
He kissed with a need that stole her breath far more effectively than her recent fall. His arms wrapped around her, she clung to him and everything was exactly as she remembered. It was hot and hungry and perfect.
He thrust his tongue inside of her mouth. She welcomed him with darting strokes. They teased and danced, relearning, discovering.
She ran her hands up and down his back. He was stronger than she remembered, the muscles thicker. He’d filled out while he’d been gone. He shifted closer, his body bumping hers. She turned toward him and felt the thick ridge of his erection.
The proof of his desire thrilled her. She hadn’t been with a man since Ray had died nearly two years ago. For a while, she’d thought that part of her was dead. Recently it had tried to surface, but she was a single mother with a lot of responsibility. Sex wasn’t possible in her world.
But now, with Mitch, desire flared to life. Liquid ache poured into her belly, moving lower as she recalled the feel of him filling her, taking her beyond this reality to a place that was pure pleasure.
He continued to kiss her, circling her tongue with his. Then he pulled back enough to move his mouth along her jaw. He pushed up her T-shirt and jerked down the cup of her bra, exposing her left breast. He bent over her and sucked on her nipple, drawing it in deeply, flicking the tight tip with his tongue.
She gasped and strained to get closer. Her skin burned for more, her body throbbed with pent-up need. She dug her fingers into his back, then moved lower so she could cup his rear. His arousal surged against her.
He shifted her onto her back, unfastened the front of her jeans and shoved his hand under her panties.
They were outside in the middle of the day, with her horse standing close by and the sky above them. She should have been shocked or embarrassed, but she could only hold her breath until his skilled fingers slipped between her legs, into her wet, waiting heat.
He didn’t disappoint. Even as his thumb settled on that one, sensitive spot, he pushed two fingers inside of her. She was already swollen and desperate. The second he began to rub, she felt herself losing control.
It was too fast, she thought as he stroked her, at the same time moving his fingers in and out of her. Too fast and too much and so incredibly perfect she didn’t want him to stop. She arched her hips to get closer, to take more. She moaned and writhed. Wanting filled her.
He abandoned her breast, then shifted so that he could kiss her again. She welcomed him in her mouth, then closed her lips around his tongue and sucked until it was his turn to groan.
He moved his hand more quickly—rubbing and pushing, taking her closer and closer. When she was within sight of her release, he drew back.
“You’re going to have to get on top,” he told her.
He rolled onto his back and undid his jeans. Rational thinking returned just enough for her to realize he probably didn’t know how to be on top. Not yet, anyway. And who on earth cared?
She jerked off one boot, pushed down her jeans and panties, pulled one foot free, moved the clothing out of the way and settled herself on his erection.
He filled her completely, perfectly and her body responded with a sigh. She rode him a couple of times, letting herself stretch around him, taking in the sense of being with a man again. This man who had taught her the pleasures possible.
“Lean forward,” he said.
She did as he suggested. He reached under her shirt and unfastened her bra, then cupped her breasts in his hands.
Rocks cut into her knees and her palms, but she didn’t care. Even as he teased her nipples, she moved up and down, filling herself with him, letting the heat rise between them. The wanting. Everything faded except the feeling between them.
She felt him getting closer, felt herself responding to each deep thrust. The sun was hot on her back. The sound of birds and insects provided a melody. Muscles tensed, she strained forward. Then he dropped one hand, slid it between them and rubbed her with his fingers.
She came with a sharp cry that silenced the birds. Her orgasm crashed over her, making her ride him faster and faster as she drew out the experience as long as possible. Her thighs clenched, her hips moved up and down. There was nothing but the perfection of being with him again.
Beneath her, Mitch met each of her movements with a hard thrust that satisfied every part of her. He grabbed her and steadied her rhythm, then tensed and lost himself in her. When she was sure he was done, she slowed, then stopped.
Reality returned in the form of an ant climbing up her arm. Skye brushed it away, then stood, feeling exposed and awkward. She had one boot on, one off. Her pants and panties hung on one leg. Her bra was loose under her shirt. Mitch zipped up and was dressed in about five seconds. She was left with her ass hanging out for all the world to see.
While she struggled to dress, he stood and leaned against the rock, watching her.
His jeans hung empty on the left side, but she was the one who stumbled and couldn’t get herself together. Finally she was dressed and pulled on her boot. She straightened, not sure what to say.
There were a thousand things. Like, “that wasn’t supposed to happen.” Or, “I don’t have sex with strangers.” Except Mitch wasn’t a stranger. Not exactly.
His dark eyes gave nothing away. She couldn’t read him at all. Finally, one corner of his mouth lifted.
“Thanks babe. I needed that. Next time you’re feeling like you want to get laid, give me a call and I’ll see if I can fit you in.”
The verbal slap landed with perfect precision. She flushed, as shame filled her. She walked toward her horse, grabbed her hat, shoved it on her head, then swung up into the saddle and rode away.
It was only when she was a mile or so from the rock outcropping that she allowed herself to give in to the tears burning in her eyes. She cried all the way to the barn—some for herself, some for Mitch, but mostly for how young and in love they’d once been and how much had been lost.