Taming the Troublemaker | Chapter 1 Excerpt

PROLOGUE

“I have a proposition to put to you.”

Autry Hill glanced up from his breakfast, a forkful of eggs hovering in midair halfway to his mouth, to find his father dropping into the seat across the table.

John Hill didn’t look his age, his hair still dark and thick with only a few grays showing at the temples in recent years. Skin deeply tanned from years working on the ranch only made his eyes appear brighter. The Hill eyes—a striking blue surrounded by a dark rim at the outer edge of the iris that made the color pop even more—were passed down several generations, and well-known in these parts.

Eyes all of Autry’s siblings had inherited. Just not Autry. He’d gotten his mother’s hazel eyes instead. A fact he was vaguely proud of in a silly way left over from high school. Being one of five kids, anything to help you stand out from the crowd was a good thing.

Autry liked to stand out in any crowd.

He glanced around, but his mother, who’d already eaten along with the rest of his family and was working on the breakfast dishes in the sink and humming softly, was the only other person in the room. He was getting a bit of a late start, thanks to a way-too-late night last night. Not his fault. Not that late, either. Darkness still obscured the land outside the windows in the kitchen. Dawn would break soon enough, turning the land gray then hazy pink.

“You have a proposition for me?” he asked.

“No, your mother.” His dad rolled his eyes. “Yes. You.”

Autry put his fork down, curiosity rising up like a dog’s ears pricking at a sound. “Okay.”

“Your mother and I have been discussing the future of the ranch.” Just like his dad to not beat around the bush.

Autry straightened in his seat, pricked ears going straight to full alert. This ranch meant more to him than anything else in his life. He lived for the work he did here with his family, was proud of it, and had every intention of growing their already prosperous ranch for the next generations of Hills to come.

“With you kids getting married and having babies of your own, and us not getting any younger, seems like it’s time for a few changes.”

His dad was talking about Autry’s siblings, and his dad was right—their family was growing fast. Cash, after a rough start losing his first wife, had married Holly. They had Sophia, his daughter from that first marriage, and now Holly was expecting twins. Pretty soon, in fact. Will had married Rusty, twice since the first ceremony had been a bit of a rush job. Carter was engaged to Brian, though a date still hadn’t been set for the wedding.

That left only his younger brother, Jennings, only he had his own hang-ups in the love department, and Autry, who’d earned a reputation as the county’s resident bad boy. At least where women were concerned. He’d be the first to admit, he’d sowed more than his fair share of wild oats in his day, but not so much lately.

“What kind of changes?” he prompted.

His dad leaned back in his chair. “Well… it mostly has to do with living situation. Cash and Holly live in town. Will and Rusty are only here half the year, with her ranch in Wyoming. Carter will live with Brian, and Jennings is almost done building the house he’s been working on.”

Which left Autry. Adrenaline had his heart picking up speed. Was his dad about to offer him the main house? He tried to keep his pulse from leaping to conclusions, but this was a big deal. He’d wanted to be the one to inherit the house since he was about five years old.

That was when he’d learned about his dad and Uncle Jeremy, and how they’d split things up, his dad getting the house and Jeremy getting a larger portion of the ranch. His uncle eventually decided to leave the family business and moved to Austin. He still owned his majority but was happy to let his brother manage the full enchilada for a portion of the profits.

Autry loved this house. The memories, the way it smelled of cedar floors, cleaning fluids, and his mother’s cooking. This house was and always would be home base, a place where his soul was settled and happy. Except he was number four of five kids. The odds of his getting it were nil. Until now? Jeremy hadn’t had any kids, which left Autry and his siblings to inherit the full spread and figure out living situations.

“Your mom has her heart set on the Guthrie place, and it recently went up for sale.”

They were talking about the house. Would it be juvenile to pump his fist about now? Probably. Autry managed to stop himself.

“That’s a perfect spot.” He limited his comment and kept his expression serious. “Closer to town for Mom, but still easy driving here for you.”

“And that gorgeous Victorian architecture.” His mother gave a sigh of bliss.

Autry turned in his chair, giving her an affectionate grin. “I didn’t know you were such a romantic when it came to houses, Mom.”

She gave a little sniff. “About that one, I could be.”

“Anyway,” his dad continued, “we haven’t decided yet what we’re doing, but we’re thinking that the homestead should probably go to you.”

Autry couldn’t miss the doubt smothering the fun from all those wonderful words like a wet blanket. He tipped his chair back on two legs, considering his parents. “Probably?”

His mother took the seat beside him, handing him a cup of strong, dark coffee, the pungent scent wafting up to him not helping much with this conversation.

She wrapped her hands around her own steaming mug. “We’re a little… concerned… with your trajectory in life.”

Concerned? Trajectory? “What the hell”—he paused that word at a single raised eyebrow from his father and cleared his throat—“heck does that mean?”

“You need to start taking life more seriously, Son.” His dad laid it out plain. “All the stories we hear about women. It was one thing when you were a teenager, but you’re not anymore.”

Autry snorted. “Ninety percent of those stories are made-up or blown way out of proportion, and I take the ranch damn seriously.”

“Don’t swear in front of your mother.”

The warning would only come once before consequences.

“Sorry, Mom.”

She patted his hand. “What time did you get in last night anyway?”

Autry narrowed his eyes. Evaline Hill was no fool, but this time, she was also way off. “Two. But I wasn’t with a woman.” Not the way they were thinking, at least.

“Where were you?” his dad asked.

Autry crossed his arms and said nothing. Not only had this stopped being anyone’s business except his years ago, but he’d also made a promise. If Michelle’s ex found out, he’d cause problems.

His parents exchanged a glance. “The thing is,” his mom started, “this house is meant for a family. Not a single man, and at the rate you’re going…”

Autry scowled, looking back and forth between them. “Seriously? You want me to get married or something?”

“No.” His mother waved a hand as though dismissing that idea as ridiculous and Autry blew out a pent-up breath. “We don’t want you to marry until you find the right girl.”

“And you’re not going to find her at a bar,” his dad tacked on.

Yeah. He’d also figured that out a while ago. Still, no one else’s business but his. Automatically, he fell back on his trademark grin to cover his growing irritation. “Why not? I’m pretty sure all types of women go to bars.”

“Not the types you hang out with.” His mother patted her graying hair, pulled neatly up in a bun. “So, we have a… deal for you.”

“A deal,” he repeated slowly. Was this seriously happening?

“More of a bet,” his dad clarified.

No fucking way. “You want to bet me the house?”

His dad aimed his own cheeky grin at Autry. “Yup. If you can quit women for six months.”

Autry dropped forward with a thump that made his mother wince. Had he heard that right? “You want me to quit women?”

“That’s right,” his dad confirmed. “No dating, no shenanigans, and definitely no sex. We have a deal worked out that will give you the house, and we’ll move to the Guthrie place.”

His dad went into more details, but Autry only listened with half an ear. Because the rest of his attention was on the fact that he already had this one won.

What his parents didn’t know was that he’d been growing restless the last year or two. The last woman he’d dated, he’d ended it almost six months ago, and hadn’t been in a woman’s bed since. Sure, he’d been on a few more dates here and there, but none that led to anything serious, and definitely not to bed. Not doing that wouldn’t be any kind of hardship.

Six more months would be cake.

The house he’d always loved and grown up in was as good as his.

CHAPTER 1

“Are you seeing anyone new, Beth?” Her sister’s voice interrupted thoughts that had no place in a loud bar.

Beth Cooper pulled her mind from the young student in her class who’d been giving her a hard time lately, or all year really, and shook her head. “After the last guy went for Lexi in less time than it takes a tick to bite, I decided to take a break from dating for a while.”

Not that a ton of eligible men resided in the small Texas Hill Country town of La Colina to begin with. Slim pickin’s, as her mother would say.

Most of the single men in the area were in this bar, probably. One of the more popular spots in town, Hurricane Harry’s was full most nights. With its rustic décor—including scuffed wood flooring, an ancient oak bar straight from the Wild West, and the iron and wood tables—it basically was the movie version of every Texas bar ever.

Except this one was real.

The smells were definitely real—beer, sweat, and bar food. The clink of ice in a highball glass a man close by was drinking from barely registered over the buzz of noise as patrons stood around talking over the loud music coming from the live band at the other end of the room. She and her sisters had managed to commandeer one of the few tall tables. The back of Beth’s legs stuck to the padded leather stool top as she swung her legs, unable to quite reach the foot rail.

Shouldn’t have worn a skirt.

Her sisters exchanged wrinkle-nosed glances that managed to be sexy on them. In fact, two men a table over stared in open appreciation. Beth had tried the expression in a mirror once, and decided she looked more constipated than adorable, and sexy didn’t even factor into it.

That had always been the way of it though.

The typical middle child, Beth was described as the “funny one” or the “nice one,” or on a good day, the “cute one.”

Lexi, the oldest of the three, and Juliet, the youngest, could’ve been poured out of the same mold. Both tall and curvy with long, honey-gold hair and bright blue eyes, her sisters could put many Hollywood starlets to shame. Beth, meanwhile, had ended up short, and skinny, with nothing that resembled a curve without extra padding. Her pale blonde hair, cut to fall around her chin, made her the colorless versions of her sisters. Only her eyes came close, the same sparkling blue.

Not that she’d ever resented them. Lexi and Juliet were her best friends and closest confidants. On top of that, they were smart, sweet women with ambitions. They’d opened a boutique in town a year ago and were doing well. Sure, every man she’d ever dated had dumped her in a heartbeat the second he met one or both of her sisters—case in point, the last jerk to come through town.

“He was an ass, Beth,” Juliet called over the beat of an up-tempo country song blasting from the stage. She reached across the sticky wood tabletop to squeeze Beth’s hand.

“Yeah. An asshat and a lawyer.” Lexi bobbed her head. Thanks to her ex, her sister couldn’t stand lawyers. “The right guy for you will come along. One whose head isn’t turned by big hair and bigger tits.”

“Lex!” Beth protested, unable to hold in a fit of giggles. “I’m not worried. I’m too tired to be worried.”

Lexi and Juliet both nodded their understanding as they all paused to take swigs of their beers. Or the apple cider that Beth opted for. Blasphemous to be a country girl in Texas and not love beer, but she’d always found it too bitter.

Beth hid a sigh. She loved her life. A childhood with a loving family, and down-to-earth siblings, despite the attention they attracted, who adored her as much as she adored them, had been a start any child would be lucky to have. She thrived in her job. Teaching was a calling. Besides, living in town had provided her with independence and a decent social life. As long as she discounted her obnoxious neighbor, she had it damn good.

The white picket fence with her adoring husband and two-point-five kids could wait. I’m only twenty-six. Plenty of time to not end up an old maid. Though try and explain that to her mother.

“Not even a person of interest?” Lexi prodded around her beer glass as she took another swig.

Of its own volition, Beth’s gaze slid across the bar to Autry Hill. He looked good tonight, poured into tight jeans that he’d paired with a black button-down, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His short, dark hair, he’d combed to the side, and she could practically see the twinkle of fun in his hazel eyes from here. Not that he’d ever turn that twinkle in her direction in any meaningful way.

She didn’t have a crush. Not exactly. He was just… nice to look at. That was for darn sure. Not her type. Loud and brash and all about fun, he rarely stayed with the same woman long. His lifestyle managed to make Beth feel like she’d already turned into the spinster aunt that loomed in her future.

She sat up straighter. I can have fun. I’m at a bar right now.

Bringing her gaze back, she found her sisters watching with eyebrows raised. What was the question again? Oh yeah, dates. Beth shook her head. “No prospects. What about you?”

Both her sisters pulled identical grimaces. “Slim pickin’s,” Juliet said and held up her pint glass.

Lexi and Beth clinked glasses with her. “Slim pickin’s,” they parroted.

Another burst of sound pulled Beth’s gaze across the room just in time to watch Larson Miller punch Autry in the face hard enough that his head snapped back.

Instead of hitting back, though, Autry put a hand to a cheek already turning red and gave the sexy, sheepish grin Beth had seen him use a hundred times before. She couldn’t hear what Larson said before a couple guys dragged Larson back out of the room.

What was that about? He’d probably done something with Michelle, Larson’s wife, though Beth had heard the divorce was almost final. Because of Autry? The man did seem to garner an amazing amount of female attention, usually followed by animosity of some sort.

Beth pushed the pause button on that thought. Not my business.

Tipping her bottle back, she downed the last of her cider, the berry flavor sharp on her tongue, and hopped off her stool, wobbling in the high heels she’d worn. She’d actually tried to dress up tonight—flouncy flowered skirt, tight top, and heels—not that anything had come of it. “I’m going to use the little girls’ room, then I’d better get going. It’s a school night.”

She wound her way through the throngs to the bathroom at the back. When she came back out, though, she paused to find Autry standing in the back corner, his back to her, phone to his ear. “Sorry, Michelle. I don’t know how he found out.”

So, he had been the cause of that split? Interesting. Not that she’d do anything with the information, but a tug of disappointment poked at her anyway. She never liked it when people turned out to be who the rumors said they were, and Autry had always been kind to her.

Sneaking by without disturbing him, she returned to her sisters still at the table and dug her wallet out and slapped a couple bills on the table. “My turn.”

“We’ll come with you,” Lexi said.

Together, they wrapped up in their winter coats and headed toward the exit. Beth didn’t bother glancing over at Autry again, though she was still stupidly aware of the fact he was back at his stool at the bar. He’d probably already moved on to another girl, and his life was none of her business anyway. Besides, she had Dylan to contend with tomorrow. Twelve years old and bright as a newly polished tack, he was also struggling with school and a temper on a hair trigger most likely due to his life in foster care bouncing from one household to another.

If I could only help him. Beth had attempted several things—inviting him to join a club she sponsored, trying to talk him into one of the other clubs, suggesting he join the PALs program—but to no avail. The kid remained closed off and resentful. What he needed was a solid male role model. At least, that was her latest brainwave.

Out in the parking lot, Beth did her best to not stumble as she struggled to find purchase in the graveled lot while in heels. All the while, she fished around in her purse as she walked, Lexi and Juliet at either side. She was only half paying attention to Lexi’s chatter, her mind focused instead on Dylan. That and what she had next on her never ending to-do list, despite the exhaustion nipping at her heels.

“Ah-ha!” she muttered when she managed to lay her hand on the keys which had worked their way to the bottom of the pit she called a purse. She aimed the clicker toward her truck and pushed the button to unlock it.

Once they reached the vehicle she turned to hug her sisters. “Thanks for coming out. I really needed that.”

She got smiles in return. “You need to take care of you sometimes,” Juliet insisted.

Beth grinned. “That’s what I have you two for.”

Lexi shook her head. “Get some sleep,” she ordered. “The shadows under your eyes are turning into permanent marks.”

Beth rolled her eyes. “I’ll try.”

Lexi and Juliet walked away, and Beth got in her truck. She fished in her purse again and pulled out her cell phone. But when she went to click it into the holder attached to her dash, she frowned to find no holder where she’d left it.

“What the heck?” Her heart picked up its pace. Had someone robbed her? What else did they take? She whipped her head around and froze at the sight of muddy work boots in the back. Men’s boots.

Confusion had her head swimming. Some guy left muddy boots in my back seat? Who does that?

Wait a minute… In the dim light cast by the flickering parking lot fluorescents, she peered more closely around the vehicle interior. Beyond the boots, this truck was pristinely clean and smelled of leather and spicy aftershave or maybe cologne. Nothing like her truck, littered with papers and bags from takeout food, as well as the accompanying smells.

“Oh, my God.” She gasped. This is not my truck!

Beth jumped out of the vehicle like her shoes were on fire, hoping like hell that no one else was in the parking lot to witness this. As she hopped out, she did what she always did with her own truck and used the button on the door to lock it before she closed the door with a slam.

Even as she did, a fleeting thought crossed her mind. I hope the owner has his keys.

Too late now. A quick glance around the parking lot told her she was alone. Even Lexi’s car was gone. She quickly located her own vehicle—an exact replica of the tan Toyota Tundra she’d just been in parked only five spaces over and facing the other way. With a breath of relief that no one caught her in such an embarrassing situation, she hopped in, and drove away, happy to put distance between herself and what could have been extreme awkwardness.

Lexi was right… she definitely needed to get more sleep.

She stopped at the light that led out of the parking lot and onto the main road leading into town long enough to pop her cell phone in the holder. Then she reached for her purse to pull out her hands-free device, giving into the urge to call her sisters and tell them. They’d get a good laugh out of it.

Only… her purse wasn’t where she normally plopped it on the front seat.

Realization struck with all the subtlety of a bucking bull. Her heart might have stopped beating entirely followed by slamming against her ribs as adrenaline burst through her along with a healthy dose of mortification.

 “No,” she muttered. “No. No. No.” Her mutterings escalated to wails. “I did not just lock my purse in some random guy’s truck.”

But the rock of dread now sitting in the pit of her stomach, combined with the unfortunate absence of her gray faux-leather purse—a recent gift from Lexi and Juliet’s boutique—told her she had.

When the light turned green she spun her truck around in an illegal U-turn and returned to the scene of the crime.

Please no. Please no. She mentally chanted the words as she pulled in next to the other truck and got out. She went up on tiptoes, cupping her hands to peek inside the window.

Her heart sank the rest of the way to the bottom of her feet.

Any shred of hope that she’d been wrong disappeared. The purse sitting on the passenger seat mocked her, glowing in the flickering overhead lights. Beth was well aware she’d locked the door when she got out a few minutes ago, but she tried it just in case. No luck. None of the other doors were unlocked either.

In a vain attempt at a miracle, she clicked the unlock button on her keys. Logically, she knew the owner had left the doors unlocked when they went into the bar and she hadn’t unlocked it with her key fob earlier, but she figured why the hell not? Sometimes garage door openers worked on other garage doors, right? Why not keys? No luck though, the truck stayed locked.

Beth bit her lip and debated what to do next.

She had her cell phone. Should she call a wrecking service to come unlock the truck for her? But it wasn’t her truck, so no, that wasn’t a good idea. She gazed over at the building where she’d just come from. Did she go make an announcements in Harry’s, looking for the owner? The problem with that was a few restaurants shared the same parking lot. What if the owner came out while she was in there and drove off with her purse? Not to mention extending her embarrassment to every person in the bar.

Beth glanced at her watch. “Dang it,” she muttered. Elementary school teachers didn’t cuss more than that, but she was tempted.

Not much she could do except wait. With a grrrr of irritation at herself, she retrieved her cell phone from her truck and then lowered the tailgate of her truck and sat, determined not to miss the owner when they returned. A shiver ran over her skin thanks to the brisk winter wind that carried the scent of coming rain with it. Beth pulled her legs up, adjusting her skirt to sit crisscross applesauce and cover the exposed skin as much as possible, warding off the chill in the air. At least today wasn’t miserably cold, given that winter was still in full swing. Except her heels were uncomfortable this way, so she pulled them off and tried to tuck her feet under as well. Much better.

She dropped her head in her hands. “Why do these things always happen to me?”

At least she had nowhere to be immediately. After drinks, she’d planned a thrilling night of grading math tests with microwave mac and cheese for dinner. Her lack of plans might end up being a good thing, because, in addition to the restaurants and shops, it occurred to her that a movie theater was also attached to this parking lot, which meant she had absolutely no idea how long she might be waiting. Although, while the practical side of her couldn’t wait for the owners to arrive, if she were honest, she didn’t mind delaying that moment of what was guaranteed to be pure humiliation.

Sure, other people had probably tried to open the door of a car that wasn’t theirs. She’d bet that happened all the time. Maybe they even got in it like she had. But she seriously doubted anyone else on the planet had managed to lock something of theirs in said vehicle.

Explaining this one to the owner was going to be interesting to say the least.

With a sigh, she picked up her phone and checked her emails before moving on to a game as she settled in to wait. A flash of light brought her head up and pulled another sigh from her. The unmistakable rumble of thunder, still a long way off in the distance, rolled softly over her.

“Just what I need,” she muttered.

***

Autry made his way to the parking lot, happy to be heading home early. Getting punched by Lawson Miller in a bar had not been on his agenda tonight. Not retaliating had been a feat of inhuman control he hadn’t realized he possessed. He rubbed a hand over his cheek and hoped like hell he hadn’t got Michelle in a heap of trouble. He’d say this for Larson, the guy could sure pack a hell of a wallop.

“I’m getting too old for this shit,” he muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face. The dark growl of thunder nearby agreed with him. Good thing he was leaving early. Maybe he’d avoid the approaching storms and get home ahead of them.

Back to the ranch, the house that was nearly his, and the general restlessness he’d been experiencing for months now. Like he was standing at a crossroads, but none of the roads had signs, so he wasn’t sure which way to go. He’d seen how happy his siblings were, settling down with one person who knew them like no one else and loved them. Not that he was ready to settle down, by any means, but take the ranch and build up the dreams in his head? That he could do.

But first he needed to win this damn bet.

Tell that to Stella Aikens, who’d sidled up to him at the bar, obviously tipsy. “I saw what Larson did. How’s your poor face?” Not wanting to be rude, Autry had thanked her only to be landed with a hand on his thigh way too close to his crotch and a whispered, “I hear you’re amazing in bed…”

Holy shit. What happened to flirting? A little effort? He wasn’t some sure thing.

Granted, once upon a time, he would’ve taken Stella up on the invitation. Not because he was all that interested. More like why say no to what she was clearly offering? But that had been a hell of a long time ago. Had the women in La Colina County not got the message that he wasn’t into a quick fuck anymore?

He flipped his keys in his hands in restless twirls, hardly registering the tinkling sound of metal on metal as he did. Or maybe Mom’s right and I sowed my oats. Now I’m figuring out what’s important in life.

Autry gave a mental snort. No way was he telling his mother that her homespun sayings had actually sunk in at any point.

 “Um, hi, Autry.”

The slightly nervous female voice pulled him out of his musings and Autry glanced up to find Beth Cooper sitting on the tailgate of a truck parked beside his. She slipped her heels back onto her bare feet and hopped down, teetering for a second on the uneven ground.

Immediately he reached out to steady her and his body stirred with interest, a reaction he shut down as quickly as it started. Beth with her big blue eyes and sweet personality. He’d put her squarely in the “off-limits” box way back in high school. The woman was an elementary school teacher for heaven’s sake, definitely not the girl he took behind the bleachers in the gym and…

Autry turned off that mental image with a haste born of desperation. Off-limits. He also realized he was staring at her, not having responded to her greeting. Beth was giving him that look, one that said she worried about him sometimes. He’d caught that look from her before.

“Hi, Beth.”

“Is this your truck?” The edge of nerves made itself present in the way she fluttered her hand as she waved at the Tundra beside them.

“Yes,” he said slowly.

She grimaced and mumbled something like, “Of course it would be you.” Only he wasn’t entirely sure that’s what she’d said. Then she tugged on her skirt, a nervous habit he recognized from when they were kids.

“So…” She gave him a cheery smile. “I have a funny story.”

Autry hid a sigh. After a hell of a couple weeks, leading up to a hell of a night with Larson and then Stella, he didn’t have time for whatever Beth thought was funny. “Beth, I need to go home. It’s a long drive.”

“That’s fine. I get it. But I need to explain why my purse is… um… is locked in your truck.”

Autry paused as her words sank in, then had to stop himself from taking a couple steps back as shock skittered through him. Beth Cooper—sweet, innocent Beth—was… hitting on him?

When he didn’t say anything, she continued. “I was having drinks with my sisters. You remember them?”

Juliet and Lexi? How could anyone in La Colina County forget those two? Though he’d never really been interested in either of them. Funny, given they should’ve been obvious targets for his brand of fun. Autry nodded, but he was only vaguely listening, mind still spinning about Beth hitting on him, as she went on a rambling story about getting into the wrong vehicle and locking it as she got out.

No way was he buying this story. “If you always lock your truck when you get out, why did you think an unlocked truck was yours?” Autry wanted to smack himself the second the question was out, because the answer was pretty obvious.

The way Beth rolled her eyes, she thought so as well. “I was unlocking it with my key fob.” She pointed out in the uber-patient voice he’d bet anything she reserved for recalcitrant students.

“Right. And how did you mistake my truck for yours?” he wondered next.

“We drive the same model and color,” she pointed out.

He glanced at the back window of her truck then over at his own. “You have a hot pink bumper sticker that says I’m not short, I’m fun sized.”

She crossed her arms. “I don’t check for the sticker every time I get in. Besides, I approached it from the front.” She wrinkled her nose. “I guess we both pulled through.”

“You’re not backed in now.”

“I didn’t realize about the purse until I’d driven away and had to come back.” She was starting to speak through clenched teeth.

“I see,” he said without thinking. Then shook his head, having trouble focusing. All he could think about was the fact that Beth Cooper—the most prim and proper schoolmarm in town, an angel as far as most of the people in town were concerned—was hitting on him.

He ran his gaze over petite features and creamy skin, perfect even under the dim parking lot lights. Her pale blonde hair was ruffled in a way that gave her a little-girl-lost vibe he had to admit he was sort of into.

Autry’s body stirred in a reaction that neither Stella nor any other woman in that bar had engendered. Except Beth was off-limits and he had a bet to win. “Beth… I’m flattered that you’re interested—”

Her eyebrows scrunched down over those amazing eyes. “Oh, my God. I’m not hitting on you.”

He ignored the protest. She was getting shut down after all, of course pride would make her protest. “It’s definitely the most creative approach I’ve seen. If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I would have taken you up on whatever it is you’re offering.”

Hands plonked down on slim hips. “Autry Aaron Hill, you’d be the last person I’d be interested in.”

“Oh, really?” He cocked his head, his customary flirtatious grin slipping into place with practiced ease. “You’ve never wondered even a tiny bit?”

Because he sure as hell had.

Her pink lips parted in a gasp. “Of course not. Listen, if you’ll just give me my purse, then we can both get going.”

Autry crossed his arms, a spark of mischief prompting him to not let that go. She might have been in the “off-limits” box but he’d also caught glances. If most any other woman had looked at him with that mix of curiosity and need, he would’ve walked over and whispered something naughty in her ear before dragging her off for fun. But Beth was too innocent, too much of a good girl to try those kinds of moves with her.

“I tell you what, Elizabeth Ann Cooper…” He deliberately mimicked her use of full name. “I will give you your purse back on one condition.”

Narrowed eyes greeted his statement. “What condition?”

“A kiss.”

“What?” she squawked, arms flailing. “No way. It’s my purse.”

But even as she protested he could see the flush rising in her cheeks, despite such low lighting. She was definitely interested. One itty-bitty taste to satisfy his curiosity, then back to becoming the straitlaced, stand-up citizen he was determined to prove he could be.

“It’s my truck,” he shot back. “And you’ve insulted my manhood implying I’m not worthy of you.”

Her lips flattened and she shook her head. “Some things never change.”

Autry paused, though he didn’t allow his smile to slip. “What does that mean?”

“It means you had a one-track mind in high school, and years later, you obviously haven’t grown out of it.”

Damn. He’d forgotten Beth’s tendency to call him on his bullshit. Plus, he had that damn bet to consider. Regardless, he would never have made her do it. He might have a thing about teasing her, and he had to admit to kind of hoping she’d take the dare, but he’d never forced himself on a woman. Ever.

He dropped the smile entirely and turned to his truck to unlock it. “I’m just teasing you, Beth. Of course, you can have your purse.”

He grabbed a gray sack the size of a backpack, and just as heavy, from the passenger seat and handed it over to her.

“Thank you,” she said primly as she backed away from him.

Like he was a leper or his flirting might be contagious.

But then the dimples that had teased him as a youth came out to play, her eyes lighting with mischief. “I didn’t figure you for someone who gave up so easily. Guess I won this one.”

With a wiggle that had certain parts of him perking back up, she turned to her truck.

Autry stared at her back for all of two seconds, assimilating her words. Oh, hell no. This slip of a woman was not winning anything… whatever that meant.

He was around the truck to her driver’s side in a few quick strides. Beth squealed when he spun her around by the waist.

“I always win,” Autry said.

He took her lips not harshly, but firmly and chastely, the scent of something light and alluring swirling around him as she gasped.

He was tempted as sin to dip his tongue inside the warm recess of her mouth to tease hers, but he wouldn’t push it that far. With more effort than it should’ve taken, he forced himself to stop at the one peck, pulling back to gaze down into wide, bemused eyes. God, he wouldn’t mind continuing though, his body vibrating like a tuning fork.

With Beth Cooper of all people.

Then he went rigid with shock as Beth went up on tiptoe, wrapping her arms around his neck and putting the first kiss to shame as she showed him what kissing should always be like—her lips pliant and soft against his. He hardened in an instant, pushing painfully against the zipper of his jeans as she pressed her petite body to his, her tongue tangling boldly with his. She nipped at his lower lip, then soothed it with her tongue. With a sexy hum, she dropped back, her dimples in evidence yet again. “See. You may always win, Autry Hill, but I never lose.”

Autry stared down at her, his chest tight. Hell, his entire body was tight, and everything primal inside of him took over.

Scooping her up by the ass, he pinned her against her truck and tangled one hand in her silky hair so he could show her sassy mouth what kissing could really be. Beth moaned against him, wrapping her legs around his waist and giving as good as she got. Autry broke the kiss, dragging his mouth over her jaw and to her ear sucking the lobe into his mouth and enjoying how she shuddered against him, a satisfying hitch in her breathing.

A wolf whistle split the air and Autry froze.

Dammit, he was supposed to be changing his ways, not ravishing the local schoolteacher in the parking lot. What if this got back to his parents? They’d never believe he hadn’t done more than kiss her.

He buried his face in Beth’s neck breathing hard, collecting his thoughts for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.

He lifted his head and lowered her gently to the ground. Even through his good intentions, he still registered the slide of her body against his, the smooth skin of her thighs against his hands. When had he gone under her skirt?

Beth swallowed, dimples nowhere in sight. “I goaded you into it,” she said, her voice gone all sultry.

Autry swallowed and shook his head. “Don’t. Don’t apologize. This was all me.”

He stepped back, glancing away to give her privacy while she adjusted her clothes. A glance down jolted him as he realized his shirt was unbuttoned. Vaguely he recalled small hands exploring his chest.

He started on the buttons, glancing up at Beth who watched, her bottom lip—a lip he’d just been sucking on—caught firmly between her teeth.

He couldn’t stand the concern shining at him from those faded blue-jean eyes. With a grunt, he stepped forward, taking her face between his hands. “This was all me. I promise it won’t happen again, and I won’t tell anyone. I’m not the kiss and tell type. Okay?”

Her shoulders dropped from where they’d been hovering around her ears and she nodded slowly, accepting his word. That was the thing about Beth. She’d always trusted him.

And now I’ve gone and messed that up.

Mentally calling himself all sorts of names, Autry reached around her and pulled open her door, then helped her up in silence. Why was such a tiny thing, one who lived in town, driving such a big vehicle anyway?

He closed the door, stepping back as she gunned the engine, but then she rolled down her window. “Autry?”

Was she about to lay into him? He stepped closer. “Yeah?”

Those damn dimples twinkled at him. “I was always curious what it would be like to kiss you. I guess we both won this one.”

With a wink he felt to the bottom of his gut, she put the truck in gear and pulled away.

Autry watched her go with bemusement, shaking his head. “Who knew. Little Beth Cooper has a bit of a bad girl in her,” he muttered. Then chuckled.

Too bad he couldn’t take her up on it.

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