I'm so excited for you to try my books that I'd like to offer you the first chapter of Disowned Cowboys for free. Enjoy!
Disowned Cowboys by J. Rose Allister
Siren Bookstrand Menage Amour
Copyright © 2011
An engagement ring was the absolute last thing Aimee expected to see pulled from a backpack in the middle of a hike. Yet there it was, held between David’s long, tapered fingers while he sat beside her on a boulder at the pinnacle of the hiking trail. The princess diamond glittered as a final moment of sunlight fell, then dark clouds swept across the horizon and blocked the rays.
The roar of Shay Falls in the distance paled in comparison to the heartbeat thundering in Aimee’s ears. She knew her mouth was hanging open, but attempts to hinge her jaw closed were useless. Blinking rapidly failed to erase the bauble that surely must only be in her imagination, and when the pounding in her ears finally softened enough to hear again, she realized David was speaking to her.
“I know this seems unexpected,” he was saying, “but I want you to know I’ve given a lot of thought to this. I really believe this is the best solution for both of us.”
Tearing her gaze from the generous rock in his hand, she lifted her eyes to find his pale browns regarding her from under a fringe of auburn bangs. “You want me to marry you?”
“Marriage seems like the smartest way to ensure we both get what we want from our relationship.”
“But you’re my boss.”
“And I’ve been helping you with your family needs. That goes a bit beyond boss territory, wouldn’t you say?”
A twinge of guilt jabbed her stomach. “I have appreciated all the help you’ve given me, David. More than you know.”
“The money for your mother’s care wasn’t offered just to keep you working for me. I want to see that you’re happy and taken care of.” He lifted her chin with his free hand. “I’ve grown very fond of you, Aimee. I’ve been thinking more and more that I should share my life with someone. We make a good team, and we need each other to make our lives function smoothly. If we take the next step, I’ll be in a better position to help with what you need—and you’ll be able to help me.”
Marry David Anders? Aimee stared at him, trying to picture him as more than just her employer. He was fit and toned in his snug red T-shirt and tan hiking shorts, and his narrow face was decent looking enough. She just never thought of him that way. She never thought of anyone that way.
“Working well together at the office doesn’t mean we’d be good together in other areas,” she said. “Don’t you want to be more than fond of the woman you take for a wife?”
He glanced down at the ring, shifting it this way and that as if trying to catch a ray of nonexistent light. “You and I have talked about the whole ‘love at first sight’ thing, and neither of us believes in it. I’m thirty-five and you’re twenty-five, but we’ve never glanced across a crowded room and spotted that perfect someone. That sort of thing happens in movies, not real life.”
Caution thudded in her stomach. “I suppose.”
He fixed her with a weighted stare. “I’m a practical man. I know better than to wait around for a fairy tale. I know you, trust you, and care for you. I know the way you think and the things that you like. That’s why I brought you here to do this.” He gestured around them. “I know how much you love hiking, and the falls was the most romantic place I could think of to ask you to take our relationship to the next level.”
She glanced at their surroundings. Shay Falls was a picturesque setting, tucked away in the mountains with crisp air, towering pine trees, and one of the tallest waterfalls in the state. The overlook spot he’d chosen was a perfect vantage point for the waterfall’s three-story drop, which was a breathtaking sight even at this distance. Still, she had to bite back the urge to ask how he figured she loved hiking. She’d only been a couple of times in her life. Not to mention how marriage was the obvious next level to working in the same office.
Before she could reply, he picked up her hand and tenderly slid the diamond on her ring finger. The fit was perfect. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for an answer right now,” he said. “But again, I’m a practical man. Think about it, Aimee. Think about us. Other marriages have started off with less. If you let me be part of your life, I can help you even better financially.”
“And what am I supposed to help you with? What do you get out of this?”
He lifted a hand to stroke her cheek. “I told you, I want someone in my life. Just wear my ring while you think about it.” He bent close to her, and she stiffened. “Try on the idea of being my wife. Here’s something to help you consider what we could mean to one another.”
His lips fastened onto hers, and she couldn’t help but wonder how he could go out and buy her an engagement ring without even having kissed her before. He did raise a couple good points, including the fact that she’d never find a fairy tale. Love at first sight happened to other people.
For that reason alone, she gave in to his kiss to see what it might stir inside of her.
His mouth felt foreign rubbing against hers, but the sensation wasn’t unpleasant. She didn’t have much experience with kissing, despite her age. Opportunities had presented themselves, sure. Many potential suitors had offered to show her what a kiss could be like, but she always held back. Stupid though it may sound, she often felt like the belle at a ball, waiting for Prince Charming to declare her the one true love he’d searched for. She would know him, and he would know her, and that would be that.
His lips pressed tighter, more insistent. Yes, a no-nonsense office assistant had a Cinderella fantasy. And yes, she was aware that the notion was ridiculous. Now, more than ever, the way David had just framed that for her proved how utterly insane it would be to hold out for that magical feeling of rightness. She’d barely been kissed and never done more. How would she even know what love was?
He drew back from the kiss, and she felt a stab of guilt for having let her mind wander during their big moment. His eyes seemed a bit glazed. “Wow,” he breathed. “I figured we’d be compatible, but I sure wasn’t expecting that.”
She blinked, wondering what he meant.
“Tell me you felt it, too.”
Part of her wished she could. She really, honestly did. David was nice looking, with soft eyes and neatly trimmed hair the same shade as hers. He wasn’t overly muscular but had the lean build of a man who spent time hiking and bicycling. She already depended on him for a job and the extra help for her mother’s care. Why not make it official and settle down?
She offered a smile. “It was nice.”
His slight frown made it evident that he was hoping for a better adjective. Aimee got up on slightly shaking knees and brushed dirt from the back of her snug cargo pants. “I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m racing out on the moment, but could I excuse myself for a minute? I need to use the little hiker’s room.” Open-air urination didn’t thrill her in the slightest, but at least it would give her a chance to get some distance.
“Sure.” He rose and stood beside her, eyeing her carefully. “Look, I’m sorry if I threw you for a loop with this. It wasn’t my intention.”
Her eyes fell to the foreign object on her hand. “It’s not that, really. I’m fine. I just need to, uh, commune with nature. Sorry for the crummy timing.”
He smiled. “No need to apologize. I’ll be right here. Watch out for the poison oak we passed around the bend.”
She gave a nod. “I won’t be long.”
Aimee turned and started back down the path, wondering just how far she would need to travel to find a private spot where he couldn’t hear her pee—or her screaming thoughts.
“Wait,” he called after her. She paused, and David caught up to her in a few long strides. “Here.” He held out her brown backpack.
“I won’t be gone that long.”
“Never go anywhere without your pack. Hiking 101.”
She took it from him and hefted it onto her back. “You’re right.” Especially since she’d packed toilet paper. “Back in a jiffy.”
The most she thought she’d have to worry about today would be blisters on her feet from the hiking boots that weren’t yet broken in. Now, as she headed down the path with her thumbs looped through the front straps of her pack, she was entertaining thoughts about marrying a man who thought he knew her better than he did. A man who probably had more flaws than he showed her at the office, though she figured she knew him fairly well.
What she did know would have many women squealing in delight to wear his ring. He owned a successful business, drove a nice car, and didn’t mess around, or at least hadn’t dated much from what she’d seen. He wasn’t the neatest housekeeper, but he knew his way around a kitchen and did his own laundry. His laugh came easy and turned up crow’s feet around his kind eyes, the way her father’s used to. He was a sharp dresser—not one for designer labels, but he knew a thing or two about quality clothing and how to accessorize.
Still, what did she know about being a wife? She’d never even been to bed with a man. What did David expect from her? He wanted someone in his life, but she was already there, and quite a lot. She kept him organized and on time and occasionally put in a penny or two’s worth of thought on how to improve his business. Sex couldn’t be all that he wanted because no one in their right mind married a woman just to get her in bed. This she knew because she’d been told by men who’d been frustrated by her outdated values. Maybe her virginity was a throwback to ancient times, but it wasn’t like she’d ever asked a guy to marry her because of it. She wasn’t holding out for a ring on her finger.
Why the hell was she holding out?
Was it really the thought that Prince Charming should come sweep her off her feet, or the fact that she was just too busy for a relationship? Her mother had gotten sick while Aimee was still in high school. While other girls worried about dates and prom dresses, she worried about finishing school while holding down two jobs. Guys asked her out, but few inspired her to tear herself away from the grind. A sad commentary, perhaps. But there was more to life than putting an end to virginity. That was why God invented the vibrator.
Aimee came to the bottom of the path, where it split off between the advanced trail and the way she’d come. Had she really come that far? Her thoughts had carried her for longer than she’d thought.
She looked both directions. There were plenty of thick bushes up on the advanced trail that looked promising, so she made the turn and headed up to a thicket of brush. Stepping off the narrow path a short ways ahead, she shrugged off her backpack to root for the Ziploc baggie of toilet tissue. A glance around didn’t reveal any poison oak or stinging nettle—the two undesirable forms of plant life she recognized on sight—though the clumps of scrub scattered among the bushes and pine could have been just about anything. With her luck, she’d wind up squatting over a butt-rash Betty or some such thing that she’d never heard of.
Peeing outdoors ranked right up there on her list of least favorite things, but it was forgotten when a roaring pop exploded through the serene space. She spun around with a gasp, her eyes scanning the forest for the source of what could only have been a gunshot. Hunting wasn’t allowed in Shay Falls, so far as she knew. Or was it? Another little fact that might have made her better equipped to wander around the mountains alone. David’s reassuring knowledge of the area would have been a big help right about then. Why hadn’t she just gotten over herself and squatted in the bushes right behind him to do her business? Instead, she’d wandered off in half a daze and was now God knew how far away.
“David?” she called out. “David!”
Her bladder no longer in any hurry for relief, she stepped out from the bushes while clutching her backpack by a single strap. The wind picked up as she emerged onto the packed dirt path, tossing strands of her short curls over her face as she peered around what was fast becoming a dark, gray afternoon. Storm clouds were gathering overhead, which provided yet another reason not to have taken this little stroll. Should she try to backtrack until David could hear her? Or lay low in case more bullets were about to hit the skies?
A faint rustle sounded from a dense grouping of trees a ways off, and she froze. The sound was too insistent to be wind blowing the branches and too rhythmic to be pinecones hitting the thick layer of pine needles on the ground. Footsteps were approaching, and fast.
Too late, she realized the footsteps were running too quickly to be human, coming at more of a gallop as she heard something crashing through tree branches and shrubs. Then came another pop, and before she could drop to her knees to take cover, bushes nearby parted as a large, furry animal emerged. She spun on her heel to set off at a dead run away from whatever it was.
A scream tore from her as she tried to identify the animal from the blurry piece of fur she’d caught sight of before turning away. Coyote? Bear? Her legs burned with the effort of sprinting after the miles’ worth of hiking that her body wasn’t used to. The backpack flailed wildly around the hand that was still clutching it. The racing steps behind her grew closer, no matter how fast she tried to flee. She plunged into a thicket of trees, dodging right and left in hopes that the cover would make her less of a target. It was no use, however. She could hear the thing bearing down on her.
Belatedly, she realized it would have been smarter to hide when it first approached, let it continue on past as it ran away from the gunshots that were no doubt scaring it off. Instead, she had become something to chase.
A heavy weight slammed into her back, sending her skittering off balance belly-down onto the ground several feet from the edge of the cliff. She screamed and rolled instinctively, bringing the backpack up in front of her as a shield while she tried to scoot herself upright. Her wild eyes turned on the creature and widened in panic. The wolf stood over her, glowering down with a brilliant yellow stare. Its brownish-gray fur bristled around its neck and back. Slowly, it lowered its snout and began sniffing at her.
“Go away,” Aimee said, wishing she sounded more terrifying than terrified. “I’ll hit you.”
The wolf bared its fangs as she hefted her backpack to swing it around in hopes of nailing the animal in the head. When the pack came around to bear, the creature actually clamped down on the padded strap with its sharp teeth, yanked the bulk from her hand, and sent the bag hurling away with one powerful motion of its head. She watched in horror as the brown pack skidded right to the cliff and disappeared over the ledge.
“No!” she said. “My gear.”
The wolf stepped forward while she scooted away on her ass and hands, grabbing at handfuls of pine needles and leaves while wishing for a tree branch or rock she could use as a weapon. Jesus, she was going to be attacked. Why hadn’t the thought of wild animals occurred to her when she’d wandered off?
She and the beast stared at one another for a long moment, Aimee still inching her way back. Then the wolf jerked his head upward, sniffed the air, and took off running like she hadn’t ever been there. When more rustling came from the woods, she was shaking so hard with adrenaline that she couldn’t even get back on her feet. Moments later, a woman burst through the tree line, gun in hand. She was dressed in olive drab from head to toe, save for black hiking boots and a small shock of red hair visible from beneath a duckbill cap. Jogging at full tilt, the woman barely glanced at Aimee before rushing past.
“Help!” Aimee shouted.
The woman paused, heaving out sharp breaths as she looked down at her. “Which way did it go?”
“The wolf?” Amy jerked her head to indicate the direction. “Up that way. Wait!” she added when the woman started off again without a word. “I’m lost, and the wolf tossed my survival gear over the cliff.”
The look that was flashed down on Aimee made her realize just how pathetic that story sounded.
“Were you bitten?” the redhead asked.
Aimee hesitated, and the woman’s tone grew sharp. “I said, were you bitten?”
“No. It just knocked me down and scared me.”
The woman jogged up the trail.
“That’s it?” Aimee called after her, finally getting to her feet. “Can’t you help me? Please.”
The redhead whirled on Aimee. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m busy at the moment.”
“Can you show me the way back to the waterfall overlook spot?”
“I don’t have time to play babysitter. You want help, here’s some advice. Don’t hike in the woods alone if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Unless you want to be on the dinner menu, that is.”
“What am I supposed to do, then? Sit here with an apple stuck in my mouth?”
The woman gave her a derisive glance. “Head for the ranger station six miles east. You won’t beat the storm, but you can make it before nightfall. Which I highly recommend, by the way. It’s a full moon tonight.”
With that, she took off at a full clip, leaving Aimee alone. “Which way is east?” she shouted after the woman. “My compass went over the damn cliff.” The woman was gone before she’d even finished the tirade, and she sighed. “Great.”
Aimee carefully stole over to the cliff’s edge to peer over the side. The pack was within eyesight, lying on top of a branch sticking out from the cliff a good fifteen feet down.
“No way I’m getting that back,” she said, rubbing her arms against the falling temperature and turning back to survey her surroundings. Which way would take her back to the trail? Was she really better off trying to find the ranger station, or should she try and retrace her steps?
The station was east. She raised her eyes to the skyline. The sun set in the west, meaning if she headed the opposite direction, she’d theoretically find a ranger to help. Trouble was, the sun was nowhere in sight thanks to the black clouds roiling overhead. No way to tell which way was which.
The wind whistled through the trees now, loud enough to dampen the sound of the falls. The falls! Maybe she could follow the noise back to where David must by now be wondering what the hell had happened to her. If she could get close enough for him to hear her pathetic shouting, he could guide her the rest of the way.
A shiver shook her when she turned to try and find her tracks to follow back the way she’d come. The windbreaker she’d stuffed in her backpack would come in handy about now. Along with several other items she’d never see again, like her cell phone.
Aimee looked around, wishing the trees and rocks didn’t all look so much alike. Which way had the wolf chased her? Adrenaline might have made her run a little bit faster, but it sure hadn’t made her thoughts any clearer. She spotted the area where pine needles had been disturbed when she’d shuffled her ass over the ground to escape the wolf. All she had to do was follow the most likely set of tracks away from that spot and she’d be fine. She might not be a wilderness expert, but she could find her way back to a lousy trail. After she finally answered nature’s call.
* * * *
Thirty minutes later and several degrees colder, Aimee acquiesced to the fact that she was going the wrong way. Pausing in a clearing, she gazed up at the dark sky and felt the first patter of raindrops land on her face.
“That’s just perfect,” she said to no one. She sniffled, both from the cold and to ward off the other moisture threatening to run down her face. She was good and lost now, and the afternoon was growing dark with more than just bad weather. Night was falling.
She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Help!” she cried out for the fiftieth time. “Please, someone. David?”
The call of a distant hawk was the only reply as she trudged along, every step growing harder as the blisters she figured would show up arrived to rub against the boots she wished she could take off. Her fingers were numb from cold and from being clenched into fists as she folded her arms across her chest. As rain fell from the skies above, she stopped holding back the tears that had been threatening for the past half hour, and both mixed together to stream down her face.
Her path among the trees grew blurry in the already dim light, and she stumbled on a rock. She managed to break her fall, though her knees and palms throbbed in protest as she picked herself up and wondered whether David would find her. Had he come looking on his own, or called for help? Were rangers out searching the mountain for her now?
A rumble from her empty stomach was answered by a roll of thunder above. Thunderstorms normally soothed her, but now the sky sounded angry. Hell, she was angry, too. Who was stupid enough to wander off in the woods with little in the way of survival knowledge and have her gear tossed over a ledge by a wolf, of all things?
It really had been a wolf, and the more she thought about it as she walked along, the stranger the entire encounter seemed. Wolves were night animals, for one thing. And they were supposedly afraid of humans. Ha! This one hadn’t gotten that memo. He was smart enough to snatch her pack and toss it away without a thought. Bizarre.
Another rumble shook the mountain, vibrating through her chest. Then the sky opened up, buckets of water pouring down to soak through her thin shirt and drip streams of water from her hair and down her face. She shook her head to clear the view and rubbed the rain from her eyes. If she hadn’t turned her head to the left at exactly that moment, she would never have seen it.
A cave loomed nearby, too dark to see inside, but large enough to offer her shelter from the deluge. She wandered over with caution, squinting as though that could help her peer inside the pitch-black mouth. The opening was wider than her car and several inches taller than she was, but she couldn’t see more than a couple of feet in. No telling how far deep it was, or what, if anything, was lurking in its depths.
She paused just outside, listening through the persistent drone of rainfall for any sign of carbon-based life forms inside. Mama bear rumblings, maybe. Or wolf growls.
Maybe it would be better not to chance it.
Another crack of thunder split the sky directly overhead, and she lunged the last couple of feet until she stood just inside the mouth of the cave. This blocked the main downpour, but gusts of wind brought in enough sprays of water to prod her into creeping back farther. She stopped just out of range, wishing she could flatten herself against the wall of the cave rather than stand dead in the middle in full view of creatures with better night vision. Images of genetically mutated spiders and critters with pincers kept her from venturing close to either wall, so she just stood there hoping nothing was preparing to drop down on her from the ceiling—or pounce on her from within.
Her chest heaved with the exertion of her long trek, and she forced herself to take long, deep inhalations to silence her breaths and hopefully make her presence undetected. After what seemed to be several minutes of quiet, she began to relax. The cave was empty, hopefully not because the current occupant happened to be out for a stroll. She inhaled and was treated to a musty dirt smell. No pungent animal odor. That was reassuring, at least.
She pulled her soaked shirt away from her skin and squeezed water from it. Her teeth began to chatter from the draft blowing in, but at least she had shelter now. If need be, she could stay overnight and hope to God she could un-lose herself in the morning.
Aimee crept deeper into the dark cave, wishing her shirt wasn’t sticking so miserably to her skin. And that she had some food, a blanket, and the flashlight from her backpack so she could actually see where the hell she was going. Oh, well. First thing would be to lose the wet shirt. She could wring it out as best as she could, if nothing else.
She inched forward another few feet and peeled the shirt up over her head. Just as the wet fabric cleared her eyes, she spotted a warm, orange-yellow flicker a few yards off.
There was light in the cave.
She blinked at the anomaly and looked closer. More likely the cave had front and back openings, and she had found the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. She turned around and frowned at the mouth of the cave behind her. It was barely outlined in a paler shade of charcoal gray. Why was the light warmer on the other side? Even if the clouds were parting outside—which seemed unlikely considering the persistent sounds of the storm—the sun would be down by now. The cave was lit from the inside.
When she turned back around, she barely inched toward the golden bloom of light. Several feet ahead, she saw that the cave widened out where the glow grew brighter. The improvement in her vision emboldened her pace, and she was about to enter the wider area when an odd clanking changed her mind.
She froze, listening to a rattle that certainly wasn’t a wolf or a mama bear. The noise was decidedly metallic.
The wash of light painting the cave walls now was sufficient for her to see there were no creepy crawlers waiting to skitter along her bare torso, and so she pressed herself against the damp, cold dirt wall in order to risk a peek. She almost lost her nerve when the rattle sounded again, louder this time. Still, she felt driven to look. She had to know what it was that was clinking around in a near-dark cave.
She sucked in a silent breath and held it while she poked her head slowly around the corner. Her eyes shot wide at the sight on the ground just a dozen or so feet away. She’d thought maybe she would find an animal, or some kind of tree or national forest signpost blowing in a draft brought in by the storm. The last thing she’d imagined to find was a man chained up, naked, and crouching on the cave floor.