Too Hot To Trot (#3, Cowboy Way) (7 page)

“Done—you deserve it,” Zack replied, his eyes gliding up to hers.  “And I owe you for groceries and gas too.”  From past experience, he knew he’d be paying a helluva lot more than that for professional nursing care, and she was doing a lot more than that for him.  He couldn’t afford to pay her even what he was, but he was going to.  Maybe that would give her time to make the right choice and not go back to dancing after he left.

A puzzled look pinched her face, and she shook her head, sending her dark hair swishing around her shoulders.  “You’re not supposed to up the ante, nimnuts. You’re supposed to argue with me—
negotiate.

“Why?  I agree I’m a pain in your ass…” There was no doubt about it, and with this woman he couldn’t seem to help it for some reason.  “But I do have one stipulation.” Maybe he could kill two birds with one stone.

“What’s that?” she asked suspiciously, folding her arms over her chest. 

Wary
.  There it was again, and dammit he wanted to know why.  If he had to pay for those answers, he would.  “Before I leave here, I want to know your story. 
All
of it.  I want to know why you’re so damned cautious around men.”

Her arms unfolded, and she shook her head again, as she turned back toward the kitchen.  “That story is not for sale, cowboy—that’s my business.” 

Zack let a few minutes pass, listened to her banging around in the kitchen, then he slid the ice bag off his arm and dropped it on the table again.  Although he knew damn well he should just let it drop to keep the peace, he couldn’t.  Pushing up from the sofa, he walked to the kitchen. 

“What could possibly be so awful—”  He stopped when he rounded the corner and found Heather leaning on the counter by the sink, her hands gripping the edge.  Her hair covered her face, but the shaking in her shoulders, her bowed head, were sure signs she was crying.  Because of him. Guilt shot through him, as Zack stalked over to her. 

There was nothing on earth he hated more than a crying woman.  Twyla and he could be arguing, and if she turned on the water works he was done.  It was the same with his mother—any woman.  That this hard-shelled woman was crying, because of him, ripped at his insides.  Walking up behind her, Zack wrapped his left arm around her waist and kissed the crown of her hair. 

“Shh…what’s wrong, angel?  I’m sorry for being a nosy bastard.  Is that it?” he asked, hugging her tighter.

She sucked in several gulping breaths, sniffled a couple of times then raised her right arm to run her wrist under her nose.  “No,” she squeezed out, before he heard her sob again.

“What’s wrong, then?” he asked, his heart doing strange little jerks in his chest. 

Heather reached back to slap at his thigh, and Zack loosened his arms to step back.  When she turned to face him, she was still crying.  Tears poured from her green eyes, streamed down her face, and slid over her chest to disappear into the front of her shirt.  It felt like every one dripped into his burning gut too.

She hiccupped, ran her wrist under her nose again, then took a deep shuddering breath, before she said, “I’m cutting onions to go with the steaks.  They always make me cry.”

“Then we don’t need the damned onions,” Zack growled, his eyes on her lower lip which was plumped up from her crying jag.

“We need smo—” She hiccupped again, and bit her lower lip causing Zack’s system to go haywire.  “Smothered onions,” she finished with a watery laugh. 

Without realizing it, he took a step closer to her and the pungent aroma of onions smacked him in the face making his eyes water too.  He didn’t give a damn, he wanted to kiss her  and he was going to do just that.  Pinching her chin, he lifted her face to meet her red-rimmed eyes.  “I’m going to kiss you, Heather, so keep your knee right where it is.” 

Zack shifted his hips to the side just in case, and her eyes widened as his head lowered and he sealed his lips to hers swallowing her gasp.  She tasted faintly of onions, but mostly wet, delicious, salty heat.  He released her chin to slide his palm up her cheek to bury his hand in her thick hair and pull her closer.  Her body stilled, melted into his kiss with a shudder, and Zack devoured her mouth, drank every ounce of sweetness there and surprisingly she let him.  She tasted so damned sweet, Zack’s whole body was steeped in it, ready for more.  So much more, he thought, changing position just slightly to press her against the counter with his body.  Heather whimpered, her hands opened releasing his shirt, and he thought she’d slide them up around his neck, but instead she pushed hard sending him staggering backwards.

Zack watched the shaking that started in her legs travel up her body until even her hair shook.  The fear in her eyes sliced through his insides, before she bent at the waist to hold herself.  Sliding down the cabinet to sit on the floor, he knew the tears he’d seen in her eyes this time weren’t from onions.  Rushing over to her, Zack eased down beside her to slide his left arm around her shoulders, and stoke her hair.

“What’s wrong, angel?” he asked, his own voice shaky. 

She didn’t utter a word, but he heard a soft sob, so Zack pulled her to him.  Heather struggled but he pulled her onto his lap and clamped his arm around her.  He was trying to comfort her, but it only seemed agitate her, make the shaking worse. 

“Let me
go
!” she wailed, struggling to break his hold.

“Not until you tell me what’s wrong with you!” Zack growled, unable to hide his frustration anymore.  He held her tighter, put his chin on top of her head and she finally stopped struggling, but she didn’t stop crying.  “Talk to me, angel. I want to help.  Why do you start shaking every time I kiss you?”

“My question is why the
fuck
do you keep
kissing
me?” she mumbled brokenly into his shirtfront. “I told you not to do that again!”

Zack laughed because he couldn’t help it.  “I kissed you because you smell like cotton candy.  That bath gel of yours drives me insane, and I can’t stop wanting to kiss you.  I think it has magical powers.”

“No, you think I’m a whore that’s why you want to kiss me.  You’re just like my stepfath—” she started, but stopped.  The shaking which had all but stopped started again, but worse.  Her body practically had him shaking.  Zack’s arm tightened around her again, as he chewed on what she said and what she’d almost said. 

“I don’t think you’re a whore at all, angel.  I think you’re confused, and wary of men for a reason.  That’s why you’re afraid to let anyone get too close to you.”  Her breathing hitched, her body tensed, but she didn’t respond.  Zack swallowed hard, trying to work up moisture in his dry mouth to ask the question.  “Did your stepfather abuse you, Heather?” Anger, the likes of which he’d never known, coursing through him.  “Is that why?”  If that was the case, Zack wanted to find that man and strip every inch of skin from his hide, before he killed him.  “Answer me, angel.  I’m good at keeping secrets…I promise I won’t tell a soul,” he cooed, stroking her hair. 

But Zack
would
kill the bastard if he ever had the pleasure of meeting him.  Just like he’d killed that thug behind the arena for trying to assault her.  There was no reason on earth for a man, any man, to hurt a woman, especially one who was as small as she was. Both of those bastards deserved their place in hell.

A heavy sigh escaped, and Heather’s warm breath brushed his throat.  “He tried,” she replied, her voice weak and raspy.

Zack hugged her to him, his eyes watering, his heart sick.  “I’m so sorry, angel.  If I ever find the man, I’ll make sure he learns better.”

“You won’t find him—I think he’s d-dead,” she mumbled into his neck, and another shiver wracked her.  She coughed, an alarm blared, and Zack noticed the thick, gray smoke floating near the ceiling. 

With a gasp, Heather broke free from his hold and sprinted to the stove, as Zack pushed up to his feet.  She yanked the dishtowel from the counter to fan it near the smoke detector, but Zack snatched it away to grab the handle of the griddle and move it to the center of the stove.  Their steaks were as black as tar, but he wasn’t wasting twenty-dollar steaks.  And he wasn’t done getting answers.  “I’ll make something to go with these.  You’ve been busting your ass all day—go take a shower and relax.  We’ll eat in the living room.”

“They’re burned,” She said with a watery laugh. “See, I told you I can’t cook.”

The reason they were burnt had nothing to do with her cooking skills, and everything to do with how fucked up she was because of a man she should have been able to trust.  The first man who should have shown her he could be trusted. 

“You cook just fine…” he said, shoving her backwards toward the hallway.  “Now, go take a shower and watch me burn the potatoes and vegetables.  We’ll have the trifecta of burnt offerings for supper.” He smiled and gave her one more nudge, which thankfully pulled an easy, but wobbly, grin from her.

“Thanks…” She turned toward the hallway, but looked back over her shoulder and narrowed her eyes. “Don’t burn yourself, or set the kitchen on fire.”

“I’ve got this—you go shower, but use the soap, because that cotton candy gel really does drive me crazy.”  That wasn’t much of a drive these days, especially with this woman in his life now.  Heather nodded, and he saw her shiver as she walked down the hallway.

Zack had a feeling the information he’d just mined like precious nuggets from her was just the tip of a very deep vein about the circumstances that formed Heather Morrison.  He was almost scared to dig the rest of it out of her.  He didn’t know if he could take hearing it. 

But now that he knew at least some, he had to know the rest.  Keeping that misery inside of her for however long had helped harden that shell of hers.  She needed to get it out, tell someone, and Zack was determined that person would be him.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Zack filled two plates, and carried them one by one to the coffee table.  He made two more trips to the kitchen for a couple of beers and utensils.  He had no idea how he was going to cut the damned tough, burnt steak himself.  He’d just have to pretend to eat it, and fill himself up on the frozen peas and mashed potatoes he’d fixed.  Thank God she’d bought a bag of frozen peas, because the two attempts he’d made to open a can of green beans had been terrible.  Zack had no idea how left-handed people functioned in a right-handed world.

With a huffed breath, he sat down on the sofa and grabbed the remote.  He’d wait until Heather got out of the shower so they could eat together.  When one boring sitcom ended, and another began, he got worried.  From living with his sister, Zack knew women took long showers, but she’d been in there at least forty-five minutes now. 

And their dinner was getting cold. 

Pushing up from the sofa, Zack walked down the hallway to listen at the bathroom door.  The shower was still running, but there couldn’t be any hot water left.  He knew himself her tank was small, because he’d taken a few cold ones himself when he didn’t beat her in there, or wait for an hour or two.  He tried the knob and the door opened, but he didn’t see Heather anywhere in the light cloud of steam that filled the small room. 

“Heather, you drown in there?” he asked with a laugh.  A soft sob came from the shower stall, and he walked to the shower door.  “Dinner’s ready,” he said, grabbing the handle of the door, but not opening it.  When she still didn’t respond, he slid it open, because he was damned worried.  His heart dropped to his toes when he found her head bent over her knees, hugging them while she shivered in the corner, dark wet strands of her long hair covering her arms.

“Aww, baby…” Not caring that he would get wet too, Zack stepped into the shower stall to bend down and grab her arm.  She stood when he tugged, shoved her hair back with her arm, but wouldn’t look at him.  Her face was turned toward the wall, but he could clearly see her beautiful face was ravaged by the cryfest she’d evidently been having in there. 

Water streamed into his eyes, his shirt stuck to his skin, and his bandage sagged as he shut off the spray then stepped back to pull her out of the shower with him.  She covered herself and shivered while he walked to the cabinet for a towel.  Walking back to her, he shook it out and wrapped it around her shoulders.  “Lift your arms, angel,” he said.

Heather shook her head, took the ends of the towel and finished wrapping it around herself, then pushed past him.  Zack followed her to her bedroom, but she closed the door in his face, so he just stood there.  He’d give her fifteen minutes to get dressed and come out. Then he was going in there to get her, he thought, as he finally walked back to the sofa.  He wasn’t letting her hide anymore.  She was going to tell him what the hell happened to her.

He sat back on the couch and watched the time tick by on the clock at the corner of the television screen.  At fourteen minutes, her bedroom door opened again and her face placid, her hair still wet, she walked into the living room wearing a soft oversized t-shirt that almost touched her knees.  More clothes than he’d ever seen her wear. 

Without a word, she sat beside him on the sofa and picked up her fork and knife.  Zack grabbed her wrist, and she tensed.  “Have the beer first, because we’re going to talk while we eat,” he said gruffly.  Picking up the remote, he pointed it toward the TV and turned it off.

“I don’t want to talk,” she said, her voice raw.

“Well, that’s too damned bad, I do.  You’re going to tell me what’s wrong with you.” He picked up his own beer and guzzled down a good portion of it.  He sat the can back down to stare at the burnt steak on his plate. 

Heather evidently realized his dilemma, because instead of cutting her own steak, she leaned over his plate and cut his steak up into bite-sized chunks.  “It’s tough as a boot.  Don’t choke,” she said, as she cut up her own. 

Zack watched as she swirled the peas on her plate into her mashed potatoes and bit back a laugh.  “They’re better that way, don’t you think?  It’s the only way I could eat them as a kid,” he informed, as he swirled his peas into his potatoes too.

“Yeah, alone they’re pretty nasty,” Heather agreed, casting him a glance, the corner of her mouth trying to tick up into a smile.

So was your stepfather evidently.  I’d like to swirl that bastard into a vat of hot potatoes, or acid. 
Zack grabbed his can of beer and finished it.  Peas and potatoes were the last thing he wanted to talk about with the woman sitting beside him.  There was no easy way to start the conversation he wanted to have with her, so he jumped in with both feet.  “So, your stepfather tried to rape you.  When was that?” he asked, picking up his fork.

Heather choked, beat on her chest with her fist, glared at him, then picked up her beer to down half of it.  She sat the can back on the table.  “None of your damned business,” she growled, then scooped up another bite to shove in her mouth.

“It is my damned business,” he said calmly.  “You’re my sister’s best friend, and someone I’d like to get to know better.  I want to have sex with you, Heather, and until you deal with this, it can’t happen.  You’re letting that bastard win by closing yourself off.”

She choked again, beat her chest then swallowed to drag in a deep breath.  Turning her knees toward him, she growled, “Not happening, cowboy.”

“Why not?” Zack asked, dragging his eyes back to his plate, pretending to fork up more potatoes.

“Because I am never having sex with anyone.  I don’t need a man to satisfy my needs,” she announced, then turned back toward her plate.  “Battery-operated boyfriends are a lot safer.  I don’t have to worry about diseases, and I don’t have to tell them they were good when I’m done.”

It was Zack’s turn to choke on the bite he’d just shoved into his mouth. She laughed as he fought to chew and swallow it.  “What the fuck?” he shouted, throwing his fork down on his plate to spin toward her. 

Heather’s lips wobbled, before laughter bubbled up into her throat.  The shocked look on Zack Taylor’s face was about the funniest thing she’d ever seen.  His flapping jaw dragged that laughter past her lips.  The flush on his cheeks, was the last straw.  She threw her head back against the sofa, and laughed until her stomach hurt.  Mr. Rose-colored-cowboy had probably never even heard of a battery-operated boyfriend, much less seen one in action.

“So does that mean you’re a virgin?” he asked, his voice disbelieving.

Heather stopped laughing, sucked in a sharp breath and sat back up.  “Why would the fact I chose an appliance to satisfy me mean I’m a virgin?” Fear coursed through her, because this man had gotten as close to the truth about things as anyone.  She’d allowed him to get that close, and needed to back him off.  She shoved her plate away, and stood.  “Maybe men are too needy, and I don’t have time for that.  You’re a prime example.”

“You’ve never had sex before, so how would you know?” he asked calmly.

Heather’s fists curled at her sides.  “You’re assuming things again, cowboy.  But my sexual status is no concern of yours,” she said, turning to stride to her bedroom and slam the door, then lean against it to get herself under control.

She thought she was hearing things when his soft voice filtered through the door.  “You can’t run forever, sweet thing. You’re going to have to deal with things, and I’m here when you want to talk.”

No, she couldn’t run forever.  That’s why she went to the library the other day. It wasn’t to get health information to help Zack.  It was to see if her stepfather was still alive.  To see if the knife she put in his side that night twelve years ago had killed him.  To know once and for all if she was a wanted woman.  It had taken her twelve years to work up the courage to do that and the only damned thing she’d found out was the phone was in her mother’s name now, and they lived at a different address in Tulsa.  She thought maybe they’d divorced so she tried his name, but there were at least five hundred Jack Thomas’s in the phone book, almost as many obituaries for the same name.  One thing she did see was his name was not listed on the roster for the Tulsa Police Department anymore.  

He was either dead, or no longer a cop.

Dredging up those old ghosts had to be why she was having these meltdowns.  Over the years since she left Tulsa, Heather had toughened herself up to the point where nothing bothered her, but suddenly after she made that trip to the library, she was an emotional mess.

The best thing she could do was forget again.  Shore up those walls that had protected her so long, and not let a nosy cowboy get further under her skin.  Staying off the grid wasn’t all that bad.  She didn’t need to be Haley Morgan again…she wasn’t that girl anymore anyway. 

Heather Morrison was stronger, tougher and could take care of her damned self.    She didn’t need a man in her life, and just as soon as she could get the one on the other side of the door out, things would get back to normal.  With a huffed breath, she pushed off of the door and turned off the light, before collapsing on the bed.  Sleep came when she curled into a ball, and forced it to take her.  Away from thoughts of her stepfather, and the handsome cowboy who had somehow taken up residence in her head.

Her legs were trapped.  Haley couldn’t move, and fought for all she was worth to free her legs, but couldn’t.  Her arms were pinned down too, and something heavy on top of her made it hard to breathe.  She opened her mouth to scream, but it was covered with a wide palm that smelled like gunpowder, and whiskey.   

It had to be her stepdad.  Jack said he was going to the shooting range earlier, and she was glad he was gone.  Her mother went shopping, and was meeting a friend, probably another man, for drinks after.  That gave Haley a minute to take a nap without worrying.  To catch up on some of the sleep she couldn’t get at night.

But he was back.  And from the smell of liquor on his breath, he was wasted.  It was so strong, she felt like if she breathed in much more of it, she’d be drunk too. 

Think Haley, think.  Do something. Don’t let this bastard do this to you! 

But he was so damned big. Six and a half feet tall and nearly three hundred pounds. 

Jack reached between their bodies to unzip his pants, and she felt the sweaty warmth of dick against her thigh.  Why had she taken her damned pants off when she went to bed? She never did that!  Haley arched her back, fought him hard.  She bit his hand, he pressed it down harder against her mouth, and she tasted blood in her mouth.  Putting his mouth beside her ear, he growled, “Be still, bitch—I’ll be done quick.  My gun is on the nightstand and I left one bullet with your name on it in the chamber.  Don’t scream—it isn’t like this is something you haven’t done for every boy at school, is it?”  He slid his hand off of her face.  “It’s my turn.”

Haley’s body shook violently, but she didn’t scream.  Because she didn’t want to die.  She might anyway she was so scared, or maybe he’d use that bullet to kill her anyway so she didn’t tell.

Jack lifted his hips a little, just enough for her to get her left arm free.  Crawling her fingers toward the edge of the bed, she let him rip her shirt open and put his nasty mouth on her breast.  A few more inches, she thought, then bit down on her lip to stifle a scream when he bit her nipple and sucked hard.  Her fingers reached over the side of the mattress, and she could just feel the wooden handle. 

Oh, God—please let him lift up again, she prayed, waiting while he pinched her other nipple, before licking his way up her body to her mouth.  She gagged when his breath filled her mouth, and his saliva wet her lips.  He covered her mouth with his, shifted his weight to knee her legs apart.  Before he settled his weight back on her, Haley scooted to the left.  He moved his weight back on top of her, pinning her again.  She felt the pressure of him at the crotch of her panties, and her heart took a sick lurch along with her stomach.  Running her fingers along the mattress again, she found the wooden handle, but this time, her palm closed around it.  And just in time too.  Jack reached between them again to shove her panties aside and position himself there.  His hips shot forward just as her arm arced upward to bury the knife into his side. 

“Noo
ooo
!” she screamed, scrambling to sit up, her heart beating out of control. A door banged against the wall, a shadowed man appeared at the side of her bed and she screamed again.  The bed dipped, then she was held again, tight, too tight.  She fought for all she was worth.  He grunted when her fist clipped his chin, and that spurred her on. 

He trapped her arms, held her tighter, and whispered in her ear, “Shh…it’s okay, angel.  I’m not going to let anybody hurt you.”  His deep voice soothed her for some reason, and so did the rocking.  “Nobody is ever going to hurt you again.” 

He held her tightly and rocked her, holding her head to his chest.  His heart beat in long slow thuds under her ear comforting her.  Heather relaxed on a long shuddering sigh, and then the tears started.  He scooted them to the headboard of the bed then began humming to her, before he started singing. 
Cowboys and Angels
.  After a minute, Heather’s voice was weak, but she hummed along, and finally the clouds in her brain cleared. 

Zack Taylor was holding her, singing to her, what happened just now hadn’t been real.  She’d had a nightmare.  Something that hadn’t happened in a very long time.  Heather put her hand on his chest, and pushed, but he held her to him. 

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