Could the third time be her happily-ever-after charm? Or is this Black Hills bad boy here today, gone tomorrow? Like a dream. A crazy, sexy dream with lasting repercussions.
Single mom Katherine “Kat” Petroski is this close to finishing her degree and being able to stand on her own two feet. Not that she’s ever had much in the way of support from either her family or her ex-husbands. Her divorced parents were more concerned about hurting each other than making sure Kat’s emotional needs were being met. When she looked for love in the back seat of a car with her Homecoming King boyfriend, she got more – and less – than she bargained for. Twice. Now, she’s only interested in sexy Alpha males if they show up in her dreams. When she rescues a RUB – rich, urban biker – from a bar fight and agrees to give him a henna tattoo, she feels perfectly safe because he’s so not her type. And when he offers to pay her to show him the “real” Black Hills, she can’t say no – the money will help pay for her older son’s dental work. But on their journey, they cross a line where dreams and reality get a little hazy.
What’s a successful orthodontist from Denver doing in a bar fight in the Black Hills of South Dakota? Jackson “Jack” Treadwell bought a motorcycle to prove to his ex-fiancé that he had a sense of adventure. He gets a bit more than he bargained for the night a pretty little barmaid comes to his rescue. Too bad she breaks his first rule of attraction: no single moms. Hiring her to show him the “real” Hills seems safe enough until a medical emergency puts him in Kat’s hands for the night. A night like none other. Jack’s dream takes him to a place he’d be content to stay for the rest of his life. Too bad he doesn’t know where–-or when-–that is.
Kat Petroski palpitated the bulge in her front jeans pocket. Not bad for a Wednesday, but nothing compared to what the regular servers would make that weekend when the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, filled with people celebrating the Days of ’76 – a yearly commemoration of the Gold Rush-era town’s founding. For a week every July, thousands of people came to the Black Hills to see the rodeo, show off their Harleys and drink gallons of beer at Pop’s, the popular Main Street saloon where she was filling in for a friend.
“Never count your tips before last call,” Becky Jennings, her mentor in the bar tending/waitress business, once told her. A flat night of tips could make the time seem endless.
Bec, who decided she needed another day at home recovering from gallstone surgery, was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, forty-something gal who took no crap from anyone. Kat often wished she could be more like her, but she didn’t have the height, weight or metabolism for it. A couple of beers was usually enough to put Kat under the table, which was why she didn’t drink.
She’d made that mistake twice in the past and had two unplanned but gorgeous mistakes to show for it. Her sons, Tag and Jordie. The true loves of her life. At the time of their conceptions, she’d have given that title to their fathers, but neither Pete Linden nor Drew Petroski had lived up to their promises. They’d married her – once her father mentioned the word shotgun, but neither marriage had lasted. For reasons she was beginning to think might be linked partly to her parents’ divorce when she was six.
Jordie’s age, she thought with a sigh. Jorden Petroski. The sweetest, most eager-to-please kid on the planet—just like she’d always been. Eight-year-old Tag, on the other hand, was tough. Because he had to be. That was her fault, too.
“Hey, Kat, I need another beer,” a voice boomed from a table in her section. “And give this guy a shot of Jager. He’s a virgin.”
The man doing the ordering was Brian Whitlock. A regular. He drove a rig for Black Hills Moving and Trucking. About ten years older than her thirty-one, he lived near Nemo with a wife and three little kids. But he spent the better part of his life – and most of each paycheck – in one of the many bars and casinos along Deadwood’s main street. The person he was ordering a shot for was a stranger. Clearly a R.U.B., an acronym that stood for rich, urban biker.
In this case, the man fit the name completely. His leather chaps were too pristine to be more than a week or two old. His expensive lace-up boots showed dust but no real scuffs. A hint of silver was evident in the sideburns showing beneath his do-rag, which was black with orange skulls on it.
When he’d first walked into the bar, she’d given him a quick assessment–an acquired skill and necessary survival tactic in this business. Mid-thirties. No wedding band on his left hand. She put his height at six feet, weight in the one-eighty range. Maybe less. The pecs and biceps displayed by his spanking new black T-shirt told her he wasn’t a weight lifter. There was clear definition and form, but no look-at-me bulk. The logo on his shirt told her he knew how to use the Internet because she’d ordered one just like it for her stepbrother. Those shirts wouldn’t be available locally for another week and a half when the Sturgis Bike Rally started.
Like Deadwood’s Days of ’76, the rally drew all kinds of people from all over the world. The bikers brought their own brand of craziness, but their money was a huge boon for the Hills’ economy. Quite a few came early and stayed for both events.
“Coming right up.”
She slipped behind the made-to-look antique bar since Guy, the bartender, was playing dice with a couple of regulars while waiting for the night to pick up. Guy was a decent fellow, retired from some branch of the armed forces and big enough to keep order when things got rowdy. He acknowledged her with a nod, as she filled the shot glass.
She inhaled a lungful of smoke-tainted air as she headed across the room. She wasn’t surprised to see the RUB watching her – she’d chosen to wear her Victoria’s Secret push-up bra and low-cut tank top for a reason.
As Pete–ex-hubby number one-–so eloquently put it when she’d unloaded Tag and his camping gear at his father’s house in Rapid City, “I see you’re wearing your Tits for Tips outfit. Ya’ should have gotten that boob job when I offered. Then you’d really haul in the cash.”
Pete prided himself on being a breast man. Why he’d dated her in high school was still a mystery—given the fact she was a modest B-cup. She’d turned down his offer of breast enhancement because she was still nursing his son at the time he offered. By the time Tag was done nursing, Pete had found himself a new, more generously endowed woman. Apparently, a divorce was cheaper than surgery.
Pete was taking Tag and Tag’s half-brother, Aiden, camping at Deerfield Lake until Sunday, but he’d called that morning to say he was running late and needed Kat to deliver Tag, instead of his picking up their son on the way to the lake as planned. This meant Kat had had to dress for work earlier than she would have preferred, drive to Rapid, drop off her son, then take I-90 to Sturgis to straighten out the mess regarding her vendor booth application, which she’d just learned had somehow gotten lost, before heading to Deadwood. More driving, more gas.
Kat’s other son, Jordie, had left earlier that morning to attend a Native American powwow with Char, her good friend and fellow member of the Wine, Women and Words book club. Unlike Pete, Char had picked up Jordie. Right on schedule.
“Here you go, gentlemen,” she said, carefully setting down the glasses within their line of vision but not so they could be knocked over too easily. Both patrons appeared to be about halfway down the road to drunk.
The RUB’s gaze moved from her chest to her face. His eyes, which were an interesting shade of gray, seemed a bit out of focus, but he blinked twice and smiled. “Thangs.”
The K didn’t come out right, but his voice was pleasant–deep and cultured. And his smile was almost as sweet as Jordie’s, only this guy’s teeth were toothpaste commercial white and beautifully aligned. It was a little early to tell, but she was afraid Jordie’s were going to turn out as crowded and misaligned as Tag’s. She and Pete argued about the inevitability and cost of orthodontia nearly every time they saw each other.
“I’m not really one, you know. A vershin,” he said. “Eggcept where this stuff is concerned.” He brought the glass to his nose and sniffed. “Urgh.” He paused a moment as if debating whether or not to drink it, then he let out a sigh. “Ifnotnowwhen?” He ran the words together on an inhale then downed the drink in one gulp.
When he looked at her, his pretty gray eyes twinkled. She tried to convince herself it was the booze making them water, but then he winked. Maybe he wasn’t as drunk—or as much of a R.U.B.—as she first thought.
That’s when it struck her that he was actually rather handsome. A second later a cannon-fire warning sounded in her head. Swoo alert. Duck, lady, duck.
The last was an inside joke only her friend Libby would have gotten, but Lib understood better than anyone the power of swoo — a made-up word Kat’s mother had used to explain why the women in Kat’s family were drawn to downright awful choices in men.
“Some people might call it charisma, but that’s a little fancy for the spell certain men can cast over us. Might be we’re genetically susceptible to faulty pheromones,” her mother had theorized – too late to do Kat any good.
By the time Kat understood the power swoo had on her, she was pregnant a second time and saying “I do” with Drew Petroski – the cutest, most immature outfielder she’d ever had the misfortune to play softball with.
She shifted sideways and leaned down to pick up the man’s empty glass. She noticed his gaze followed the lace that peeked above the dip in her neckline. “That’s nine-seventy-five,” she told them. “The beers are half price because of happy hour.”
She braced herself for a ten and a “keep the change” from Brian, but to her surprise the stranger fished a twenty from the hip pocket of his new-looking jeans and dropped it on her tray. “The rest is yours,” he said, his words overly correct, like he was trying to act sober for her benefit. “For providing yet another rule-breaking, risk-taking, fantasy-living step toward reinventing myself. Y’know what I mean?”
Not even close. “Sure. Thanks.” She had no idea what that speech was all about, but he wasn’t the first drunk to think he’d found the road to enlightenment through an alcohol-induced haze. “Another round?” she murmured, backing away so fast she bumped into two people making their way toward the door.
“Oops,” she said. “Sorry.”
A man and a woman. Both in leathers – broken in in a way the R.U.B.’s weren’t. The man – a big, burly guy with thick, fat fingers sticking out of black leather demi-gloves – steadied Kat with both hands, acknowledging her apology with a low grunt.
The woman apparently thought her man’s sweaty, unpleasant touch lingered a millisecond too long because she shoved Kat back toward the table she’d been serving with a powerful straight-arm.
“Back off, bitch,” she snarled, her bloodshot eyes squinting lethally.
Kat managed to keep her balance, but her hip grazed the wooden back of the chair occupied by the big tipper. “Sorry,” she told him.
“Don’t apologize to that pretty-boy biker wannabe,” the woman growled. Her voice held the same two-pack-a-day roughness Kat’s mom’s had held – before her diagnosis of throat cancer. She didn’t smoke any more, but she didn’t talk much, either, thanks to the valve in her windpipe.
The woman, who was only a few inches taller than Kat, but a good hundred pounds heavier, drew in a breath, making her ponderous breasts strain against the American flag tank top. “God, I’m sick of all these weekend warriors showing up thinking they’re cool because they can afford to buy a Hog off the showroom floor,” she said in disgust. “It’s even worse at the Rally. That’s why Buster and me came early.”
Buster, who was bald beneath the black scarf tied tight to his large, square head, looked slightly embarrassed. “Le’s go, Mo.”
As in one of the Three Stooges? Kat thought. No. Too fat for Moe.
“Mo? Are you sure? She looks more like Curly,” someone said, voicing Kat’s thought.
Kat covered her lips with her free hand to keep from laughing. Any response on her part would only add fuel to the fire. She just hoped the heavyset woman in question hadn’t heard—
“Why you smartass, little shit. I was riding bikes when you still sucking teat. What are you? A lawyer? Tax accountant? Some kind of desk jockey. I know that much.”
The man turned sideways to the table so he could see the woman more clearly. He started to stand, but Kat put her hand on his shoulder and pressed downward. This tiff was on the verge of becoming a fight and no one came out ahead when that happened.
“Oh, come on, folks,” Kat said, keeping her voice light. “Let’s not go there. Name calling doesn’t make anyone feel better. Mo, right? Short for Maureen? I have an aunt Maureen.”
“Who the f—”
“Hey. Watch your language. There’s a lady present.”
The words were so outdated, Kat had to laugh. “Listen, John Wayne, thanks for standing up for me, but I hear that word about nine thousand times a night.”
“Are you sayin’ I ain’t a lady?” Mo asked. Her fists, each of which easily made up two of Kat’s, started bouncing around her sides. She gestured behind her for backup and nearly popped Kat by accident.
Kat dodged the blow then had to scramble to keep from getting mowed over by the guy she’d been protecting from a pummeling. “Listen, you obnoxious cow, you can’t just throw your considerable weight around and threaten hardworking barmaids who are trying to keep the peace. You’re a disgrace to that flag, which, by the way, was never meant to be worn as bra. Half the stars are—”
Whatever slight he’d intended was stopped by a set of leather-encased knuckles that glanced off his elegant cheekbone. Kat had witnessed enough bar fights to know that if the giant biker had been sober, the punch would have broken the RUB’s nose and maybe a couple of teeth. As it was, the impact sent the unsuspecting fellow straight into Kat’s arms.
Her serving tray, which she’d tucked under her arm, hit the floor with a loud bang. Mo gave them all one last sneer then grabbed Buster’s meaty arm and split. Seconds later, the roar of a Harley on the street outside shook the windows.
The sound made the man, who had Kat partially pinned against the table, lift his head. “Are they gone?”
In a heartbeat, she realized two things: his anatomy fit hers almost perfectly and his was the sneaky kind of swoo – you didn’t know how powerful it was until you were leveled by it.
With a harrumph of disgust–at herself, not him–she pushed him back. “What kind of idiot picks a fight with drunken bozos three times his size?”
“Were they really that big?” he asked, gingerly rubbing his jaw. “I left my glasses in my motel room.”
She looked at Brian who let out a raucous hoot, then yelled something about the size of the stranger’s cojones.
Kat shook her head in disgust. “Do you need an ice pack for that?”
“I don’t think anything is broken.”
“Well, the night is young. Sit down. I’ll get you some ice, anyway.”
She was gone before Jack could tell her not to bother. He was staying just up the street and was pretty sure he could walk back to his motel without help. Not that he didn’t appreciate the concern he’d read in her pretty blue eyes, but this was his first bar fight.
One more thing to cross off the list, he thought, trying not to smirk. Smirking hurt. He might even wind up with a black eye. If he did, he’d use his digital camera and email a shot of it to Jaydene, his ex-fiancé. Petty, sure, but a part of him wanted to show her proof that he, Jackson Boyd Treadwell, III, wasn’t a stuck-in-a-rut orthodontist with no sense of adventure. He could walk on the wild side when he wanted to. He’d simply been too busy going to school then establishing his practice to have time to experience any such recklessness.
Not that getting punched out actually had been on his list of things to do when he came to the Black Hills, but there’d been a moment when he stood up to that female bully that he’d felt heroic – invincible. Until her trained gorilla decked him. But, luckily, the cute little barmaid whose honor he’d been defending was there to cushion his fall. In a really nice way.
He didn’t usually find himself attracted to petite women. His mother was short, but he doubted if anyone had ever called her petite. Rosaline Treadwell was a five-foot-two-inch dynamo, who had only recently traded in her stiletto heels for golf shoes when she retired from the bank where she was a vice president in charge of corporate loans. She’d been instrumental in helping Jack buy the building that housed Treadwell and Associates. “It’s never too late for a perfect smile” was his marketing slogan since his group of three dentists, two other orthodontists and one endodontist catered to all ages. Jack specialized in adults. Kids were not his cup of Kool-aid, as his sister liked to say.
“Hey, man,” Brian, the guy who had offered to buy him a drink—-that Jack had ended up paying for—said. “You got off lucky. I know that Buster dude. I seen him knock a guy unconscious once over in Sturgis. You could be missing some teeth.”
Jack squeezed his jaw experimentally and bit down. Nothing loose. Thank God. He’d never hear the end of it from his mother if he returned to Denver needing emergency dental work. “Yeah, lucky me,” he muttered.
“Here you go,” the waitress said, returning with a glass of ice in one hand and a thick wad of paper towels in the other. She set both items in front of him. “The bar rags all smelled funky and I couldn’t find a zipper kind of baggie. That’s what I use when my kids gets hurt. I put a couple of cubes in the bag then cover it with a towel and let them whack the ice with a hammer. Distracts them from the pain and gets rid of some of their frustration.”
He could picture the image perfectly. He would have smiled but his face was beginning to ache. “You have kids? Plural?”
Maybe he was drunker than he thought because he could see his harmless question had caused some offense. Her pretty blue eyes narrowed. “Yes, I do. Two boys.”
“I…um…meant that as a compliment. You look too young to have one kid, let alone two.”
Some of her fight went out of her posture. “Oh. Thanks. Let me buy you another shot,” she said turning on the heel of her thick-sole running shoes. She paused to pick up the tray she’d dropped, then hurried across the room.
Her trim build reminded him of a long-distance runner –compact and lean. He swam laps every morning, but he’d been thinking about diversifying his workout routine to see more than two walls at opposite ends of his pool.
When she returned, he asked, “Do you run?”
She looked at Brian as if the question required an interpreter.
“10Ks? Marathons?” Jack tried.
“Me?” Her eyes sparkled with humor, but there was something sad in her expression, too. As if the word triggered a case of might-have-beens. “I run after my kids. That’s about it.”
“Weren’t you in track in high school, Kat?” Brian asked. “I swear that’s what somebody told me. Because you were always the fastest on our softball team.”
She shrugged. “Another lifetime, Brian. Or maybe a dream. I can’t remember which.” She leaned closer to Brian and added something Jack couldn’t quite catch.
Jack hated being the odd man out. People whispering behind his back. He’d experienced enough of that when rumors about his father had pretty much ruined his chance to fit in and have a normal life.
He dumped the glass of ice upside down on the towels. A couple of cubes rolled off the edge of the scarred tabletop.
She squatted to retrieve them, which gave Jack a fine view out of the corner of his eyes of her bosom, fleshy tan mounds squashed together by a black lace bra that peeked ever so provocatively above the edge of her low cut top.
He forced himself to look away. Why? He asked himself as he slapped one corner of the already soggy paper towel over the other. She’d dressed provocatively to draw attention. Only an uptight prude–as Jaydene had labeled him–would be too self-conscious to stare.
Before he could change his mind and take another look, she bounced to her feet, dropping the dirty cubes into Brian’s empty beer glass. She picked it up then said, “I didn’t mean to be rude, but anybody who knows me knows I don’t have time to work out. I love sports, but I haven’t even played softball since the year Brian and I were on the same team.”
“That’s cause she got knocked up a second time,” Brian said gauchely causing twin spots of red to appear on her cheeks.
Jack palmed the already soggy handful of ice and paper towel like a wad of dog poop from one of Jaydene’s whippets and pressed it against his cheek. His whole face was starting to hurt.
“Do you have any aspirin or acetaminophen on you?” she asked, her brow knit in concern.
He shook his head.
She glanced over her shoulder toward the bar. “I’ll bring you something. I’m a mom. I don’t leave home without a full pharmacy in my purse. But be discreet, okay? My boss thinks he could get sued if you had a bad reaction.”
“I’m not allergic to anything,” Jack said, trying not to move his jaw too much. His words probably sounded garbled, but she smiled as if she understood him completely.
Like that was possible. No woman he’d ever met really got him—including his fiancé and his mother. Everyone saw the outward signs of success—nice home, luxury car, booming practice–and assumed he was someone he wasn’t. Happy, secure, confident. All things he pretended to be.
It had taken a surprise and rather shocking confrontation with the woman he’d intended to marry to make him question his everyday reality. Like him, Jaydene pretended to be someone she wasn’t. Serious—she taught college algebra and volunteered at an adult school. Responsible—four years older than Jack, she seemed wise, witty, and slightly irreverent. And in the three-plus years they’d been dating she’d never once expressed an interest in kinky, multiple-partner sex until the afternoon he showed up unexpectedly at her home and found her involved in a ménage à trois—via the Internet.
Just picturing the lurid image of her legs spread on either side of her laptop with the little eyeball camera trained on her most private parts as her two partners—both men—did the same was almost enough to make him toss his last shot of anis-flavored booze.
After the initial shock had worn off, they’d talked. She’d called him repressed. Unadventurous. Boring. She’d implied that her participation in online sexual encounters was due to the fact she knew he would have shot down any suggestion that as a couple they try swinging.
And she was right.
He’d swung in a different direction. He took a long overdue vacation from work. Kissed his mom and sister good-bye, then jumped on his shiny new Harley and headed to the Black Hills. Close enough to Denver to get back quickly if he was needed, yet some place that wasn’t home.
He’d picked the Black Hills of western South Dakota for two reasons. First, he was a closet fanatic of all things Old West. He didn’t decorate his house in antiques or anything, but he watched every television series and mini-series that came along. Every incantation of Lonesome Dove. He had the entire Deadwood series on DVD. He also owned an extensive collection of movies, from Dances With Wolves to the John Wayne classics. Recently, he’d turned to romance novels to get his western fix since his two favorite novelists, Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour, were long dead.
Secondly, the Hills had a reputation that almost rivaled Las Vegas’s infamous “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” slogan. He was ready to cut loose and experience what Jaydene claimed he’d been missing. This was his time and he planned to live it to the fullest.
She just hadn’t warned that the experience would hurt.