I push my sunglasses off the bridge of my nose and inspect the guy with the horse in the middle of the enclosure. The dappled gray runs circles around him, clockwise and then counter-clockwise. It moves into the circle and the man jogs a few steps back, then he moves forward and the horse prances back. The gorgeous creature snorts, paws at the ground, and then rears up at the precise moment the man crouches and sweeps his leg out and around. It looks like they’re dancing, or maybe sparring as the guy bolts upright and the horse brings its hooves down.
My heart races, and I slam my eyes shut. Any second now the crack of hooves on skull will echo in my ears. I just know it. Instead, Summer lets out a low whistle, and I open my eyes to see the man literally dancing with the horse. Then the man turns to the side and the horse, as though on cue, twists away. A sheen of sweat makes its beautiful coat glisten in the hot mid-afternoon sun. “Unbelievable.”
The guy’s pretty sweaty too. Deliciously so. He’s also muscular and tanned and although he’s too far away to make out the details, inked like a shirtless god. Carved from marble forearms, biceps, and shoulders ripple as he twists and turns in the middle of the circle the horse beats with its hooves. And can we please take a minute of silence in thanks to his momma and the DNA that made those cut lines. Oh what a V that peaks out of a pair of faded denim jeans that loosely hug his hips. What I wouldn’t give for a pair of binoculars. I set my chin on my palm and rub my fingertips against my parched lips. I’d rather lick the salt from his skin than from my own, but beggars can’t be choosers and sometimes, well, all the time with me, I have to settle for fantasy.
“I love working here,” Summer says, leaning against the top railing of the fence we’re both standing on. She swats lazily at a single buzzing fly that’s trying unsuccessfully to land on her nose. “Claire and Razer are great to work for, and the kids are amazing. It truly is unbelievable that I got so very lucky.”
Summer Sweets was born lucky as far as I’m concerned. From the day she set foot in the school where I worked, she reminded me of a horse shoe or a rabbit’s foot. Not that she looks like one. The girl is naturally gorgeous. It’s more like she just gives off this lucky vibe that begs to be rubbed off. I once accused her of having magic pussy dust. I wish it would rub off on me. “I was talking about the hot stranger we’re ogling.”
“Oh.” She peers at me from the corner of her eye, a playful smile skipping across her face. “I thought my brother was the man of your dreams.”
A puff of dust kicks up under the horse’s hooves. “He is. Was.”
I shake my head. Was it really last fall I was trying to pique his interest? I need to give myself a serious pep talk about how I’m not going to be the kind of girl to pine over the man of my dreams when he isn’t willing to give me the time of day. There’s only so much holding out for a man’s attention a girl can do before she must give up, even if, for a moment, I thought I had Sam Sweets’s attention focused on me. But he was winging his way back to Los Angeles as soon as Summer made up her mind about staying with Gabe and Dylan, and he hasn’t been back. Not even for a weekend. Slumping, I prop both elbows over the railing and watch the deliciously sexy man in the middle of the yard. “Look, maybe I’m like Baskin Robbins, and one flavor simply won’t cut it.”
“Ice cream, huh?” Summer jumps down from the fence and swipes her palms across cute white denim and gingham patched shorts.
I drop from my perch and follow her. “They both melt in your mouth. Plus ice cream is made out of cream and—”
“I get it. You don’t have to explain.” She rolls her gaze to the sky that stretches out in an endless blue ceiling above us. A few wispy clouds, no thicker than the dust kicked up by the horse behind us, dot the horizon.
“Well, not to you,” I agree. “If anyone should understand the whole jizz, sperm, cream angle it would be you with your two hot studs.”
“That’s true.” She laughs. “So you’re over Sam then?”
Over him? That’s a tough call. Realistically, I don’t know him well enough to be into him or under him, and yet I am and I want to be. “You didn’t settle. Why should I?”
Although hooking up with Sam Sweets wouldn’t be settling. He would be more like winning the sexual lottery. Probably. Maybe. Or at least I suspect he’d live up to his name and be sweet in all the ways that count. I can tell because he’s Summer’s brother, but also because the first time I looked into his bright blue eyes I knew he’d be charming and nice and gentle and just a tad dirty. The glint in those baby blues when I grabbed his ass in a firm handshake made my belly flip-flop like a pancake.
Actually, now that I’m thinking about it I wouldn’t mind a pancake. A scoop of French vanilla ice cream on top would be great. Melted rivulets of cream, dripping and sweet over a firm stack… “Who is that anyway?”
“The guy with the horse?” She shrugs as we march up to Bennington Ranch. “I don’t know.”
Claire’s sitting on the porch swing out front. A floral cushion tucked onto her lap balances her laptop while she types. “Casper Morgan,” she says without looking up. “He’s our new chef. Or at least he will be for the season.”
“What happened to Oliver?” Summer asks.
Oliver’s been with the Benningtons since they started the ranch a couple years ago. He’s a total stud muffin if you’re into kindly older guys who know how to cook and flirt, but the twenty-five-year age gap is a little ick for me personally. Okay, I have managed to talk him into letting me run my hands through his salt and pepper locks once or twice, but still, he’s not really boyfriend material. At least not for me. I have standards. Expectations.
“He’s not leaving, is he?” Summer asks. “He’s so good with the kids when they do cooking lessons.”
After her love life exploded like so much vomit over the town and through the media and consequently the entire planet —stupid technology making it impossible to keep secrets— the school board decided that a woman in a relationship with two men was probably best suited to a career that didn’t involve educating young minds. Luckily, Claire and her husband didn’t agree and neither do the grateful families Summer works with now at the ranch.
“He can’t keep up with peak season on his own.” Claire finally closes the laptop and looks up to smile at us. “Plus he decided he needed a vacation, and Razer had a friend who was looking for something to occupy him over the summer.”
“He’s good with horses,” I say, glancing back toward the yard, but neither man nor beast are visible. Pity. He’s really good at being half naked too.
“That’s his horse. Having somewhere to stable her was part of why he agreed to man our kitchen for the next three months.” Claire braids her auburn hair over her shoulder and ties it off with an elastic band before jumping to her feet. “Do you still want to volunteer this summer, Mandy?”
“Definitely.” I’ve spent so much time at Bennington Ranch since Summer started working here that it wouldn’t make sense not to put in a few hours with the kids that come to stay for the season. “Do you think I could work in the kitchen?”
Both women titter, and when they stop it’s only because something caught their eye over my shoulder. I bet I know what it is too, by the way it holds their attention. Also the smell of horse mixes with the heady aroma of masculine sweat and musk. I may be drooling. My heart may beat staccato as I turn slowly to face Casper Morgan.
I’m greeted with dark hair, deep chocolate eyes, and a sinful mouth that gives no indication of the man’s present mood. “Have you worked in a kitchen before?”
“Have I?” He’s still shirtless. Hard lines of muscle dent his skin and there’s a fine trail of hair that points south, and makes my fingertips sensitive with the need to reach out and touch his tanned flesh. A hodgepodge of tattoos joined together by a dark vine skims the side of his torso, and snakes around his shoulder. What were we talking about again?
His gaze flickers with amusement before turning hard again. “Besides your own, how many kitchens have you worked in?”
“None.” I’m not sure microwaving Ramen noodles and frozen dinners counts as cooking, even in my own kitchen. “But I’m awfully good with my hands. You should take them for a spin.”
“You’d only be in the way.” He shakes his head and moves past me, saying a curt hello to Claire before continuing into the house.
“That was a little rude,” Summer says as I stare after him.
“He’s an acquired taste.” Claire tracks his departure, a frown creasing her brow. “He’s not very social, but he’s Razer’s friend, and easy enough to get along with once you know him.”
“Something tells me I shouldn’t bother trying,” I say. I’m used to being ignored, but not being outright brushed off like that. It stings a little even if it was purely based on my ability to survive a kitchen. I doubt he got the finer meaning of my remark either, and even if he did, he clearly doesn’t have a sense of humor.
“Maybe not the kitchen then?” Claire muses.
“Perhaps not.” I have a feeling working with him would make this the longest summer of my life. “Unless that’s where you need me.”
“Come on,” Summer says. “Let’s go get ready for Mayhem.”
Mayhem Avenue is packed when we enter. The quirky music and bookstore is more crowded and noisy than usual. It’s battle of the bands night and there’s half a dozen bands waiting for their turn on the long stage. All the extra people makes it harder to move around, but it’s also a good thing because it means there’ll be people here I don’t know. Guys I haven’t met. And I am dressed for flirting success.
“Come on, the boys snagged us a couple love seats,” Summer yells as we elbow our way through the melee, heading toward Dylan and Gabe.
We’re about halfway to them when I lose sight of her. It’s okay because I’m only a few steps behind her anyway, and I can see Dylan’s head over the people in front of me, so it’s not like I have to search for them. A wide set of shoulders that taper into a narrow waist and tight ass step in front of me and block my path. Not that the guy even notices me until I’m shoved into him.
“Excuse me. So sorry.” I yell, my palms flat against his shoulders while I’m jostled from behind. Is this how Summer feels when she’s sandwiched between her boys, because it’s a little overwhelming to be honest. There’s a lot of hard muscles and sweat. I’m not sure I could handle all that man meat. Even if it is a nice little fantasy.
“Could you be careful? You spilled my drink.” The guy in front of me turns, at the same time the person behind me shifts and finally gives me enough space to back up.
Casper Morgan scowls at me. Does he even know he’s doing it? Does he have any idea how hot that looks on him? And he’s wearing a shirt. A wet shirt, thanks to me. A white, semi translucent shirt that clings to hard abs and chiselled pecs, hard brown nipples, and dark ink that crawls up one side of his body. My mouth is parched, the rest of me is wet. Like his shirt. Or the contents of his now empty drink. The details of his tattoos are hazy through the linen, but I can still recall the star shaped leaves of the vine scrawled over his ribs, and I can’t stop staring. I swallow hard. My mouth isn’t so dry after all. “Sorry.”
“Oh, it’s you.” He sneers, his lip curling while he berates me. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
My jaw drops. “Are you always so rude? I can understand that you don’t want to work with me, but this was an accident, and not even an ‘I burned down your kitchen’ type accident. It’s just a little…” I gesture at his shirt.
“Jack.” His hard expression falls for a second, his eyebrows pulling tight over his eyes. “I shouldn’t have—”
“There you are,” Dylan speaks from behind me, his hand clamping to my shoulder, and I glance up at him. “Are you okay?”
“Of course.” I stare back at Casper. With the lift of one shoulder he turns back to the bar, ignoring us. The guy has no manners. He’s completely rude, a jerk. I grit my teeth. I want to call him out on it.
Dylan squeezes my shoulder, dragging my attention back to him. “Help me with the drinks?”
“Yep.” I nod since the noise escalates as the first band takes the stage. I fling a last look over my shoulder at Casper the Jerk as I follow Dylan through the crowd. What could possibly be wrong with the guy anyway? What happened to turn him into such a rude human being?
Odd. He’s looking our way, and though he doesn’t acknowledge he notices me looking in his direction, his expression isn’t hard. It’s weary. His whole face seems to drop, and his eyes… No, he’s mean. Firsthand experience tells me that he’s an awful grouch. I turn my back on him and continue after Dylan.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Summer says, stirring her cappuccino like she’s pulled a Claire and dumped a truckload of sugar in it that needs to be dissolved.
“What’s that?” I sip at my latte, then set it down in favor of the sparkly rainbow cupcake I decided to have for breakfast. Sugar is great for a hangover apparently, not that I would know. That’s the beauty of being as much of a lightweight as I am. It takes nothing to get drunk and even less to recuperate.
Although I can’t say it’s that easy to recover from my run in with Casper Morgan. He might be drop dead gorgeous, but his personality is awful. I’ve never met anyone I disliked more. Or been as curious about. I really want to ask him why he’s so ill-mannered. Actually, I don’t. He’s not the least bit interesting.
“First you need to promise you’re not going to get too excited.” Summer smiles to herself. “I mean it really isn’t a big deal.”
“Why do you think Casper is such a jerk?” I lean across the table to stop her stirring. The chink of the spoon on the edge of the cup is making my teeth ache, and I keep recalling the haunted look in Casper’s eyes when he thought I didn’t see.
“I have no idea.” Summer’s eyes widen as she jumps back a fraction. “You know I don’t like to conjecture about other people.”
“It isn’t gossip when it’s important information one party needs to know.” I grip her arm. “And I need to know.”
“W-well you could ask Claire. She might have some idea.” Summer purses her lips. “Does this mean you really are over your obsession with Sam?”
“It’s hard to be obsessed with a man who you haven’t seen in a year, and who isn’t here.” I exhale through my mouth as I slump back in my seat and scoop up some of the colorful frosting on my cupcake with my fingertip before popping it in my mouth. Still, I find myself fantasizing about him in vivid detail. Wondering if I would have had a chance with him if he lived in Reverence. “So yeah, I guess I am.”
“That’s good to know,” she says.
“I’m sorry. You were saying you had a surprise?” I try to steer my thoughts away from men.
“Nothing.” Summer waves it off. “It wasn’t a big deal. Not even worth mentioning really.”
“Okay.” I’m preoccupied enough that I’m not going to press for information she’ll eventually tell me anyway. “Do you think Claire would know if Casper has a big dick?”
“What?” Summer sputters and coughs.
“It could explain why he’s mean. If it’s really big. Having it hang like a snake to mid-thigh. I heard there’s some that even hang to a man’s knee. Could you imagine carrying one of those between your legs?”
“Uh, no.” She’s staring at me agape, her coffee cup held halfway between the table and her open mouth. I run the gamut of giant penises while she takes a moment to sip her coffee. Then she puts the cup down. “So you’re sure you’re over Sam?”
“Absolutely. It’s a pity Casper wasn’t blessed with a small dick. I can tell that he’s probably got an anaconda in his pants.”
“It’s just a talent I have. Like I know Sam’s isn’t too big, or too small. If anything he’s probably got the perfect package.”
“I really don’t want to talk about my brother’s package.”
“Well, don’t worry. That will be the last time,” I tell her. Although not thinking about him is easier said than done. We didn’t even kiss, and I’m still swept up in sexy fantasies. “Unless you’re going to tell me he has a nice cock that a girl should hold out for. Because I could hold out. If it was worth it.”