All Cowboy Series, Book 2
When bar owner CJ Overton hires Pete Gonally to paint a motorcycle for a charity giveaway, she expects him to do it her way. After all, he’s a small-time rancher, and graphic arts is just his hobby. But Pete comes back with his own ideas, and sparks fly as tension builds between them. The only way to relieve the pressure is one hot night in her bed. Just one. But Pete wants more.
Pete lets CJ think he’s just a farm boy, but he’s accumulated a small fortune working on the oil field for years. CJ’s dream future includes selling the bar, leaving Deadwood, and traveling the world. Attaching herself to a hayseed like Pete would only ruin her chances. How can Pete convince CJ that falling for a “dirt-poor farmer” will make her happier than anything she’d ever find outside of her small town of Deadwood, South Dakota?
Pete Gonally wandered past the row of motorcycles parked along the curb, each one leaning like a domino ready to fall. The mid-September sun glinted off the shiny chrome and polished tanks and fenders. Dirty Harry’s Saloon was a favorite watering hole in Deadwood, South Dakota, even on a Sunday. Pete looked down at his bib overalls, mud-crusted steel-toed boots, and oversized T-shirt. He’d stick out like a pansy in there, but he had to do this. Today.
He turned back to look at the semi he’d parked a block away, loaded with round hay bales that he’d picked up at his uncle’s farm in Wyoming. He could make the trek back to his family’s ranch in Lemmon before meeting with his client, but it’d take three hours to get there, a while to shower and change, then three more hours to get back here to Deadwood. And he still had to drive up to North Dakota tonight so he could be at work by six the next morning.
“Suck it up.” It was just his nerves making an appearance. He had to ace this interview. This could be the start of his career as a graphic artist. He stepped into the dark bar, letting his eyes adjust for a few seconds. As he’d predicted, nearly every head in the place swiveled to look at him. The scent of leather and spilled beer rolled up his nostrils. Everywhere he looked, black T-shirts with orange graphics, bandanas, and tattoos covered patrons’ bodies. ‘80s rock played from a jukebox in the corner. He pulled off his seed cap and walked to an empty spot at the bar. He ran his hand through his curly blond hair, hoping to look halfway presentable for this meeting.
A man sitting a ways down the bar laughed. “Best card this one. He looks like he just fell off the turnip truck.”
Pete forced his mouth into an amiable smile. No sense riling anyone up.
The bartender turned and looked at Pete. A shock of short, curly, platinum blonde hair surrounded her tanned face. Serious sea-green eyes met his brown ones. Wow, she was spectacular. Walking toward him in her no-nonsense red tank top, her eyes drifted to his work clothes. She had to be almost six feet tall, just five inches shorter than him. And thin, like a runner.
Stopping in front of him, she tipped her chin up, a quick motion.
He swallowed, wanting to see if those tight lips of hers would loosen up when he kissed them, if that slightly-fuller bottom lip would be biteable, if—
“You drinking, hayseed?” The woman was all business and a good portion rude. She crossed her long, thin arms over her small chest.
“No, ma’am.” He tried to form a sentence, tried to remember who his placement counselor at the graphic arts school had told him to ask for. But his body just hummed in acknowledgment of the Amazon in front of him.
“Hun, I got work to do. Did you just come in to stare?” Her eyes widened a bit, and her cheeks pinked up a little under her tan.
The bikers on either side of him snickered, keeping a close watch over the two of them.
“Ma’am, I’m looking to talk to the owner, CJ Overton. Is he here today?”
One of her light-brown eyebrows rose. “Yeah. He’s here. What’s your business with him?”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll take that up with Mr. Overton.” He hadn’t meant to be impolite, but it’d sure come out that way.
“Ooooooh,” a few of the bikers piped up.
Those tight lips of hers went even stiffer. She looked toward the other end of the bar. “Take over, Tony.” Her gaze barely brushed over Pete’s face. “C’mon, hayseed. I’ll bring you back to the office.” She strode out from behind the bar, her short denim skirt reaching only mid-thigh, her long, slender legs ending in ankle-high, lace-up red tennis shoes.
Along the hallway leading to the back exit, she stopped and punched in a code beside a black door marked “Keep Out” and led the way into a room with two desks that were loaded with papers and files. Beyond these, in a glassed-in office, an immaculately clean, scarred wood desk sat with an office chair behind it and two guest chairs in front.
She walked into the office. “Have a seat.” She gestured to the guest chairs.
“Thank you, ma’am.” He stayed on his feet, waiting for her to leave.
She didn’t. She walked behind the desk, sat in the office chair, and laid her palm on the desk. “I’m CJ Overton. What ‘cha need?”
Shit. He could feel his face heat. “My apologies.” He plopped down on one of the chairs. “I’m from the Williston School of Graphic Arts. My placement counselor asked me to stop by and talk to you about your project.”
Her brows rose infinitesimally as she stared at him. “He told me you’d be by. You’re the one at the top of your class?”
Technically, he hadn’t graduated yet, but he’d aced the classes he took Tuesday and Thursday nights while he worked days on the oil field in North Dakota. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Okay.” She sat back in her chair. “You know the deal?”
He nodded once. “It’s a motorcycle job. You’re raffling it off on Halloween as a fundraiser for a charity. You’ll reimburse me for supplies and mileage, and it needs to be done in four weeks.”
“Yep.” She pulled out a picture of the bike and slid it across the desk to him. “Your counselor said you could only work weekends, and I’m fine with that, as long as it’s finished by the deadline. You wanna do it?”
The photo showed big twin gas tanks and wide fenders. He could almost feel the airbrush in his hand already. He looked up at her. “Sure. I’m happy to do this for your charity organization.”
“And for the line on your resume, I’m sure.”
He bit back a retort. His momma taught him to defer to the “softer gender” and be polite.
She tapped one finger on the desk. “You’re gonna need to turn in receipts for your expenses, or they won’t get reimbursed. And they’ll be carefully audited before we cut you a check. Got it?” Her eyes narrowed. “You even old enough to work in a bar?”
This lady was tough as leather. Not a woman he needed to pull his punches on. “First off, like I said, I’m doing it for the charity. The opportunity to have real-time experience, that’s secondary.” He stood and placed his hands flat on the desk, working up a fair piece of anger. “And what I put on my resume, that’d be my own business, ma’am.”
CJ didn’t move a muscle.
His posture had to look aggressive to her. He straightened up, hands at his sides. “The expenses will have backup, and you can audit them all you want, ma’am.” That’s all he said out loud, but in his head, the words …and shove the audit where the South Dakota sunshine doesn’t reach echoed.
Pete tucked his cap back on his head. “Now, if you need to see my ID, I’ll whip it out.”
One corner of her mouth twitched as if trying to smile but not remembering how. She pulled a scrap of paper from a box on her desk and looked at it.
After a few minutes of standing there like an idiot, he hitched a thumb over his shoulder. “You want me to leave? You don’t sound convinced I’m the man for the job. If you wanna find somebody else to do this, somebody older, more experienced, who will still work at cost and be able to meet your tight schedule, you go right ahead. And good luck.”
CJ’s intense green eyes looked up into his.
He waited nearly a minute before turning to leave. This had been a waste of time.
“The bike…” Her voice sounded a little less harsh this time. “It’ll be delivered Friday afternoon. Come by then, and you can get started.”
He let out a long breath. He’d let his temper get the best of him. He turned to face her, meeting her gaze. “Thank you. You won’t regret it.”
She did a partial eye roll and handed him the picture of the motorcycle. “I’m sure I won’t.”
Pete couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm or not, but he took the photo from her. “What time are you here Friday?” He couldn’t wait to get started. This was really happening. He wanted to pump a fist into the air, but he figured she wouldn’t appreciate it much.
She blinked very slowly. “I’m here every day, from when we open at three, to when we close at two.”
Didn’t sound like much of a life, but it explained a lot about her hard outer shell. “I’ll be here sometime that night.” He waited for her to say more, then left, walking through the bar, feeling dozens of sets of eyes on him.
He fired up the semi, hung the picture of the motorcycle on a clip on the dashboard, and headed north to Lemmon. He let his mind wander, considering the design options he had. The raffle was to raise funds for an Alzheimer’s charity. The drawing would take place at Dirty Harry’s Halloween Bash. Was there any way to combine the bar and the charity? Or was that too ambitious for his first real bike?
Every few minutes of the long drive, he’d think about CJ. How old was she? His age? How did she own one of the hottest biker bars in the area? He coughed out a laugh as he turned onto the dirt driveway of the Gonally ranch. “By acting hard as steel, that’s how.” He didn’t go right to the barn but swung onto the newest road on the spread. The one that led to his house—or at least however much of it the work crew had gotten done this week.
He pulled up to the completed frame on top of the basement bricks. They’d gotten a ton finished. The tall basement window openings had particle board over them. He took the big step up onto the foundation. The holes were cut in the two-by-sixes for electrical and plumbing.
Walking from room to room, he envisioned each space finished, furnished, and accessorized. He’d have to hire someone to do that for him, given his lack of decorating talent. Five bedrooms, an office/man cave, eat-in kitchen, formal dining room. He stopped in front of the place marked “Fire.” This was where the stone fireplace would go, built from the rocks that he and his big brother, Huck, continually hauled out of the fields and piled near fences.
It wouldn’t be long, now. He’d be able to move in by Christmas if luck stayed with him. And luck seemed to be always on his side. His job on the oil field brought in enough to pay for the house construction, plus he’d saved nearly enough in the last seven years to buy the ranch from his parents and thousands of acres of neighboring ranches. Of course, his father hadn’t had enough of South Dakota winters to retire yet.
For now, he’d keep working the backbreaking job on the Bakken Oil Field during the week and the equally rough job on the ranch on weekends. His avocation, art, would fit into his schedule whenever he could squeeze out a few hours.
Pete walked out onto what would be a breezeway to the bonus room next to the garage. His studio. It wasn’t roughed in yet, but he had a drawing of every piece of equipment that’d fit into the bright space.
The raffle motorcycle popped into his thoughts, followed by a mental snapshot of CJ riding with him, her long body pressed close behind his, her arms wrapped around him as she whispered in his ear. Low in his belly, blood flooded, and hardness pressed against his fly. Was she thinking about him, too? He laughed. Probably cussing him out for shoveling some of her bullshit right back onto her.
Damn that Pete Gonally. CJ finished wiping down the bar as her night security guard locked the front door. For some stupid reason, the hayseed graphic artist had impressed the shit out of her.
“All set, CJ.” Dolby saluted her and stalked toward the back of the bar to do one last check of the office and bathrooms. The big ex-Army sergeant would head upstairs and check her apartment next, then go to the third-floor storage area, as well as the rooftop patio. They’d found stowaways sleeping it off—or waiting to rob the place—too many times over the years.
“Thanks, big guy. I’ll be heading up in a few.”
“Night, then.” He patted the pistol he kept tucked inside his vest and winked at her, his walnut-brown wrinkles appearing with his smile.
She smiled back. One of the rare times she let down her tough-bitch façade was with Dolby. He and her father had grown up together four blocks from the bar, and Dolby still lived there with his family. He and Dad had served two tours in the military, and he was the only person in the world, besides her father, whom she trusted. And for good reason. This business was full of liars and con artists and slippery salesmen who practically demanded kickbacks.
She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and made one more round of the bar. In the small kitchen, she checked that the deep fryers were off and the refrigerators were on before shutting off all but the low lights that helped Dolby see his way when he did his rounds during the night. The man had been working the night shift at the saloon since Harry had purchased the bar all those years ago.
At the back of the kitchen, she pressed the elevator button. When the doors opened, she stepped in and keyed in the code to the second floor. Her apartment. The one she’d grown up in with her dad and where she now lived solo. The doors slid open, and she trudged out. Dolby had been here, had checked every room, every closet, and had left on a few lights for her.
The all-white space felt like diving into a cool bowl of ice cream after the dark, heavy-wood atmosphere of the bar. She turned on her laptop and sat on the white leather couch, propping a couple pillows, each a different pastel color, behind her. The art on the walls, framed in whitewashed barn wood, had her father’s signature in the bottom right corners.
Amazing landscapes, still-lifes, portraits. It had been his way of coping with stress. Everything from PTSD to raising a smart-ass little girl all alone. Her computer beeped, and the screen popped to life. She should go visit him, even though it did him no good and made her feel like she was holding on to him with a slippery rope.
She typed “Peter Gonally” into the search engine. It came up with a few things. An award he’d won at his graphic arts school, a 4-H award for his work with local youth groups, and a link to his Facebook page.
“You’re a creeper, CJ.” She clicked on the link anyway. He didn’t post often, listed his work as “Rancher.” He had a few pictures of himself with buddies, a couple with girls, which made her clench her teeth, for some reason, and quite a few pictures of his artwork. Besides modern graphics, he did amazing portraits and landscapes.
Very, very nice artwork. All different media, but the guy had talent rolling off his big, lanky body. She tipped her head back. She could easily drown herself in his light brown eyes. Did they have green flecks in them? She’d love to get a closer look. His nose had a cute little split on the end, and his lips looked twice as full as hers. Yeah, he was a cutie but too young for her. She clicked on his “About” link.
She found his age. “Oh, yeah?” He was a year older than her. Twenty-five. He looked so damned young. She touched her face. Too much sun, long hours, and stress had aged her, and she felt more like forty-four. “Maybe I could. A quick fling with a sexy blond rancher/artist?” It might work.
Clicking back to the search results, she found the county records for his family ranch. Just a small piece of land owned by Morton and Daisy Gonally, run by sons Pete and Huck. From the looks of Pete’s clothes, it must barely sustain the four of them. No wonder he was trying to break into graphic arts.
She clicked off the page and checked her email. All junk. Most of the girlfriends she’d made in high school were gone. They’d gone away to college, then off to work in big cities. The girls who stayed local were all married with kids. Not much time to hang out with their workaholic, bar-owning friend. And none of them dared come to Dirty Harry’s. The crowd here…a bit too uncultured for them.
Shutting down her computer, she lay back on the couch and held a pillow over her stomach, feeling…what? Unsettled? Anxious? Lonely? Hell, how could she be lonely when she spent eleven hours a day surrounded by people? She held the pillow over her face. Maybe it was the thirteen hours a day when she had only herself for company.