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Sage, Texas 1

A Texas Taming

Tough horse doctor Ellie O’Shea has a hard lot in life. Her mother died early, leaving her to maintain her family's ranch. The frightening nature of her mother's death has kept her off the backs of the animals she loves, and her demanding circumstances have kept her from the happiness that's right under her nose.

Fortunately for her, the Mackey brothers, alpha Brett, intuitive Ash, and the youngest, Paul, have other ideas. They’ve finally decided what to do about their clashing desires to have Ellie for their own: they will share her. Now, they just have to make the headstrong woman realize how much they truly love her. Little do they know, though, that Ellie has already fallen hard for rodeo rider Gray Porter, who also just happens to be their houseguest!

Now it’s Brett, Paul, and Ash versus Gray as these four stubborn cowpokes vie for Ellie’s affections. But when the Mackeys’ estranged brother Derby shows up, it’s going to take a lot more than stubbornness to win Ellie over—a mix that includes not least of all, a mountain lion, a little cross-dressing, a wild ride across a canyon’s back, a lot of love, and not a few nights steaming up the ranch house windows.

Genre: Contemporary, Ménage a Trois/Quatre, Western/Cowboys

Length: 36,917 words

A TEXAS TAMING

Sage, Texas 1

Lydia Blythe

LOVEXTREME

A TEXAS TAMING Sage, Texas 1 Lydia Blythe LOVEXTREME Siren Publishing, Inc. www.SirenPublishing.com

Siren Publishing, Inc. www.SirenPublishing.com

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A SIREN PUBLISHING BOOK IMPRINT: LoveXtreme

A TEXAS TAMING

Copyright © 2011 by Lydia Blythe

E-book ISBN: 1-61034-781-1

First E-book Publication: August 2011

Cover design by Les Byerley All art and logo copyright © 2011 by Siren Publishing, Inc.

Lynn, Loretta. Lyrics. “You’re Lookin’ At Country.” You’re Lookin’ At Country. Decca. © 1971.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.

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Letter to Readers

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DEDICATION

To my study buddies/fellow knitters—little did I know when I first began meeting with you all those months ago, that this book would be the result. I couldn’t have done it without you guys. To my Tuesday night writing group—you encouraged me through some dark nights of my writing soul. I owe you one! To all the talented people at Siren—you guys are superstars! And to Christopher. Like Steinbeck’s box, I am full of love and gratitude, and all of it is for you.

A TEXAS TAMING

Sage, Texas 1

LYDIA BLYTHE

Copyright © 2011

Chapter 1

Ellie ducked out of the way just in time, narrowly missing being kicked in the head by the foaling mare. The horse was moaning and bellowing in pain. Ellie had rushed to the secluded farmhouse when she’d gotten the call that it was a difficult birth, throwing a few supplies in her bag and driving over to the barn at breakneck speed. Now, after a closer look at the situation, she could tell that she was going to have to help reposition the foal. That was going to be tricky, especially since the mare seemed so irritated, but she had to do something quickly, or else both the mother and the baby would be at risk. Slowly, she approached the horse from its front, murmuring gently to it. The mare flared its nostrils and snorted, looking at her warily from the corner of its white-rimmed eyes. “Careful, Ellie,” said Joe, the owner of the horse. He was a local, an old friend of her late parents, actually, and the owner of the Double Four, the bar where her sister Mellie bartended. So he knew that Ellie was as good a person to call with a large animal emergency as the veterinarian. Better, actually, since Ellie could be counted on to come out on a cold afternoon like this one, and be alert and not resentful.

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She had been trained well by her father, who was a professor of veterinary science for many years. The mare settled somewhat at the cooing, but it was still going to be a challenge getting under her without getting seriously injured, and it would be hard to help the foal without hurting the mare more. When she’d looked at the foal’s birthing position, she could tell that the baby was coming in the breech position, because its hind legs were coming first instead of its front legs and head. A breech delivery could be done, but it was going to be a strain on the mare, especially getting the hips out. Still cooing, Ellie approached the mare a second time. She didn’t have a lot of time—if she didn’t do something soon, the foal’s young limbs could be mangled, or the mare could begin to tear. Swiftly, she pulled on a pair of gloves and made her way carefully back to the horse’s hind quarters. The horse went to swing again with its back legs, and once again, she avoided it. Callie, the mare, was normally a sweet and serene animal, but this was her first foal, and she had become very temperamental as the pregnancy progressed. She seemed especially sensitive to touch. Ellie had been around horses enough to have seen this happen with other mares, and she had developed an especially gentle manner with them. She would have been afraid to get on that—or any other horse’s— back, but she could maneuver around them on foot with a confidence few people possessed. Carefully, she repositioned herself below the mare, ready to duck out at any time if the horse decided to kick again. She could see the foal’s hooves, and she began to pull on them gently, but with enough force to help swing the baby’s hips around and out. After several attempts, she finally righted the foal. Slowly, after what seemed like hours but was really only a few agonizing minutes, the hips began to drop. The mare snorted and let out a short, mournful groan.

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Ellie gave the foal one last gentle tug. At last, the back of the animal dropped, and then nature took over. The foal was out on the floor in a few minutes’ time. The mother came over and began licking it fervently. Hastily, Ellie prepared an iodine solution and began washing the little mare’s naval. In a few moments’ time, the foal was all clean, looking bright as a summer’s day, and nursing gently on its mother. Another tragedy, narrowly avoided.

* * * *

Ellie looked up from the sink where she was washing her hands. She was twenty-six, and she’d just delivered her one-hundredth foal. She opened the door and looked around the modest ranch house that surrounded her. Because it belonged to an old friend of her mother’s, Ellie had been extra nervous during the delivery. She wanted to live up to Joe’s memories of her mother, who had passed away when she was in high school. As Ellie stood, drying the last of the water off her hands and forearms, she inspected herself in the mirror. She was a short, compact blonde—what her mother had called an “acquired beauty.” Her thick ropes of toasted gold hair hung down past her shoulders, the twin braids she always wore when working. She picked a piece of straw out of one of the long braids now. She might be pretty, but she’d never be as striking as her mother, Grace. Her mother had been the town beauty queen, and it was still said sometimes here and there that when she’d married Ellie’s father, she had broken half the hearts in town. Her father was dashing in his own way, of course, a gallant and daring man, wise in equine knowledge, who had taken her mother exploring on horseback over nearly every ridge and hill in the Texas hill county. When her mother’s favorite mount, Sachel, was spooked by a rattlesnake and her mother thrown off, the fall damaging her

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spine and leading to her eventual death a short time later, her father had soon followed, after suffering a heart attack. Ellie was left orphaned, along with her sister Mellie, both of whom privately believed their father had really died of a broken heart. After that, her aunt had come to live with her and her sister, but she had moved away to Australia for a job a few years earlier. By that time, Ellie and Mellie were old enough to live by themselves. Now, Ellie loved and cared for her mother and father’s ranch, scraping to keep the place afloat, and she was known for miles around as the best horse doctor there was. She had earned herself a reputation for being gentle and knowing with the animals, sensing instinctively the pain they felt. But she hadn’t ridden a horse since her mother’s death. Her aunt had warned her over and over again to stay away from all equestrian pursuits, or any that included riding, that is, reminding her gently of her mother and father’s fate. The warnings had worked—at least, she’d been nervous whenever she thought about riding horses, although privately sometimes she thought it might be kind of grand. Still, she hadn’t ever quite been able to work up the courage to try it. As she came out of the bathroom and said her goodbyes to Joe, the sun was already sinking low. She hopped in her truck and kicked the engine into drive, her tires sending up fine showers of gravel as she pulled out. Four thirty already? She was going to have to hurry if she wanted to make it to the stables before the rodeo started.

* * * *

Gray took a deep swig of water and rubbed his sweaty palms on his jeans. Even though he’d been riding the circuits for ten years, he still got nervous when he caught the first glimpse of that bronco, rearing and flaring its nostrils. The loudspeaker cracked through the roar of the crowd. “Riding next, Gray Porter!”

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This is it. Gray took a deep breath and let it out, then exhaled. He looked briefly up at the left hand corner of the stands, the place where, if he had a woman, he would have asked her to watch. It was a ritual, a thing he did to calm his nerves before a ride, and so Gray did it, even though he’d sworn to himself he wouldn’t have any more flings along the circuit. There was something inside him telling him that he was ready to become a one-woman man, and he intended to stick to his guns. Then he was up, his body connecting with the mare’s as she danced and reared, her ears splayed back, the teeth that could crush a man’s hand bared. At last, he connected, and for an instant, his body was like liquid gold. All the sounds—the buzz of the announcers, the roar of the audience—they all stilled. The mare twisted and writhed beneath him, and he swiveled on her back. He took every swerve, every turn. He was in the zone. Just as quickly, his luck turned, as it always did in the rodeo. The mare made a nasty buck to his right, and he turned left to counter it, but he’d gone too far. He was falling now, struggling like mad to find his feet, to reconnect with the ground and to get the hell away from those hooves. He took a tough hit to the shoulder—his right, the one he’d broken before—and, without even thinking about it consciously, he was on his feet, running toward the gate at breakneck speed. He hopped over in one bound, and landed easily, cradling his damaged arm. He looked over at the clock, his body heaving. Seven seconds. So he’d be kicked out, disqualified, having just missed the eight seconds it took for his points to count this round. He kicked at the ground beneath him, activating the jangled nerves in his shoulder, which was likely dislocated. He was twenty- eight years old with no woman, and he was getting too old to ride. And his friends were going to give him a lot of shit that night.

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* * * *

Ellie fed and combed the horses, taking her time with each one. There was a gentle little filly the ropers used that she particularly liked, an appaloosa named Tangerine. “Come here, little one,” she said to it, quietly. “Who’re you callin’ little?” The harsh voice sounded from the entrance of the barn. Ellie stuck her head out of the stall. It was Carl, the new barn manager. She’d seen him around a few times, but she didn’t really like the cut of his jib. He seemed to be hiding something behind those eyes. Then she reminded herself that it was not polite to judge. She ought to give him a chance to get comfortable and settle in before she judged him. “Hey, Carl. Just visiting with Tangerine here.” She scratched the horse gently, just under its forelock. “That mongrel? Ought to get rid of her. Too nice.” He growled. “Excuse me? Did I just hear you say the horse was too nice?” “That’s right. Crowds don’t pay to see the horses play nice.” “But, Carl,” Ellie said, “this is a roper’s horse. She ought to be gentle so the ropers can ride well.” “Oh, Ellie. You stick to doctoring horses. You don’t know anything about rodeos. That’s not the way the business is going. We breed ’em to be mean now, don’t we, baby?” he said, tugging slightly on the small horse’s reins, making her jump. “Carl, you ought not to do that.” Ellie felt her blood beginning to boil. “Yeah, you’re right. I’ve got better things to do than hang around with some animal rights activist.” He turned and walked out. Thank goodness! Ellie was afraid she might say something she’d regret if he hung around much longer. She patted Tangerine on the nose again. Maybe one day she could get

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horses like this, those in need of a great home, out and onto some farm of her own. Maybe one day. She turned and walked down the middle of the barn, and she heard the loudspeakers blaring down the hill in the arena. Some poor fools were going to eat dust tonight. The little town of Sage was known to have the toughest rodeo in the league. She walked down to where her truck was parked, about midway down the hill to the ring, and put her gear in the passenger’s seat next to her. Plunking down in the seat, she sat for a moment, ruminating as she stared vacantly at the far-away arena. But then she saw something that made her gasp. In the arena before her was the hottest cowboy she’d ever seen…diving headfirst into the ground!

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Chapter 2

Brett Mackey hauled the amp onto the stage and set it down in one fluid motion. For many people, this would have been quite an achievement, but Brett had been pitching hay on his father’s ranch since he was able to stand upright by himself, and he thought nothing of it. He was the bouncer at the Double Four, not that he needed the money, necessarily. He liked to be part of the scene there, to see the people come in and out. Just now, for instance, one of his favorite people in the world was walking through the door. It was Ellie O’Shea, and she looked more tired than he’d ever seen her. A few wisps of hair had escaped her exceptionally long braids, and she was blinking as though she were trying to keep herself awake. Brett laughed to himself. Even now, seeing her in the flesh, even when she looked dragging and worn, she was more beautiful than anyone he could ever imagine. His boss, Joe, came over and clapped Ellie on the back, his ever- present, good-natured grin plastered over his face. “Coming to the costume party, Ellie?” Brett overhead Joe asking Ellie. “I think it’s going to be crazy this year.” Brett smiled. Joe was always trying to keep up with the younger people in Sage, and remained popular amongst them, despite the fact that he was neither trendy, spontaneous, nor anywhere near young himself. The party he was referring to was the Double Four’s annual sex change party, where all the male patrons came dressed as their female counterparts, and all the woman came as men. He shivered slightly to himself, thinking about Ellie’s costume from last year. She had come in baggy

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carpenter pants, a cowboy hat, and a wifebeater, and even now, the thought of her ample breasts straining the fabric made his cock rise in an appreciative salute. “Ellie,” Brett overheard Mellie saying to her, “you smell like a horse! But I still love you.” She winked affectionately, then turned and pulled a huge plate of food out from one of the refrigerators. “Here,” she said, presenting it Ellie, “I don’t want you to get low blood sugar and faint or something.” Mellie was a spitfire, and she was the O’Shea sister that most men pursued, but it was Ellie that Brett preferred. This was a popular opinion in the Mackey household. Even now, discussion of her unconventional good looks and quiet disposition could cause a wrestling match to break out among the brothers. Brett thought that situation might change now, however, especially since he and his two brothers had come to an exciting agreement regarding the petite blonde. “Horses don’t smell that bad,” Ellie said to Mellie, tucking into the food with the vigor of someone who had just worked for hours without eating. “And they’re more polite than some people I could mention. Besides, I don’t need anyone to look after me,” she said, shooting her sister a pointed look. That’s Ellie for you, Brett thought, groaning mentally from the strain thinking about her placed on his cock. She was beautiful and earnest, all right, but she also had a wit sharper than a firecracker’s screech. She was just the kind of challenging and complicated woman Brett would like to wrap his arms around and call his own. Still, there was one problem. Ellie didn’t seem to notice that he, or any other men in town for that matter, existed. She was so involved in her work at the rodeo and her house calls, saving her sister from scrapes and keeping the old ranch house she’d inherited from her parents running and paid for that she had hardly slowed down to take care of herself, and Brett knew it.

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He was also aware that she wouldn’t take to his help right away. He remembered what had happened when they had gone to the prom together, back in high school. Ellie had walked out on him, infuriated because he had had words with another boy she had danced with. Brett had heard that the boy, James, was a bad seed. He was known amongst the boys for coercing girls into having sex with him, and of course, after high school, several girls had come forward and confirmed this, and James had fled town. Ellie had been angry at him that night, though, not knowing this, and not caring to believe him when he told her. She thought that he was too controlling, and she didn’t want to be controlled. They were on friendly terms now—they kind of had to be, since Mellie, Ellie’s sister, worked at the bar. Still, Ellie seemed cautious around him. So, if he was going to get Ellie to pay attention to the Mackey brothers, he was going to have to proceed with caution. He walked back to the door, keeping a sharp eye on the bar Just then, another familiar face made its way through the door, looking just as beat as Ellie, but slightly more masculine. It was Gray, his good friend of many years. He walked quickly and assertively over to the door and gave him two broad claps on the shoulder. Gray winced. “That’s my trick shoulder there, bub.” “Sounds like what you need is some old-fashioned medicine.” “Couldn’t agree with you more. You sell whiskey in this fly trap?” “Sell? I wouldn’t hear of it. Not for Texas’s star rodeo rider. Mellie,” he said, turning to her, “get this man a shot of whiskey. He needs it.” Mellie turned from where she and Ellie had been eyeing Gray and whispering like two school girls. Gray walked to the bar, or lurched rather, and doffed his big cowboy hat with a ceremonious

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approximation of a bow. “How do you do?” he said, in the most languid Southern accent he could manage, offering his hand to Ellie. Brett could see that he was going to have some competition here.

* * * *

This is embarrassing, Ellie thought. She had met Gray over an hour ago, and she still could not take her eyes off the handsome cowboy. He had walked up to her with a brash, overconfident stride, introducing himself as a friend of Brett’s. She knew Brett well enough to know that any friend of his was bound to be trouble, and yet, when her hand had touched his, a strange shock had worked its way up her arm, a shock that was half electricity and half pure sex. Now she sat at the bar and watched him work the crowd, talk to Mellie, just as natural as can be, and trade elbows with the three Mackey brothers, all the time shooting meaningful glances her way. Every time she caught him looking, she felt a quiver travel up from the pit of her stomach into her neck and trembling hands and a deep ache in her pussy. Ellie tried to get a hold of herself. After all, she was not a kid, and she had responsibilities. How would it look if she was out making googly-eyes at some stranger all night? What on Earth made her think that this cowboy wanted her anyway? He was more likely looking at her sister, anyway. She was the one that all the men wanted. Even if he was interested in her, he was likely more trouble than he was worth. Just looking for some woman to control, she thought, adjusting her position on the stool so that she sat up straight, defiant. It was karaoke night at the Double Four, and the rodeo audience emptying out of the arena filled the bar to almost bursting. Ellie and Mellie agreed—it was about as full as they had ever seen the place. It was a rough crowd—the rodeo always brought out that element. The girls wore their peasant blouses hanging off their shoulders. A group of tough rodeo men leaned against the back wall, hats down,

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sipping furtively out of beers that seemed to have blossomed from their fingertips. At one point, Ellie spied a grizzled old cowboy in a huge leather coat sitting alone, sipping from a flask. His hat was pulled so low over his eyes, however, that Ellie couldn’t tell who he was, and although she thought she recognized his carriage, she couldn’t put a finger on who he might be. He must have sneaked that in when Brett was on a break, Ellie thought. Brett would never have allowed that kind of thing to slip past him. She shivered. This was definitely not her scene. She looked over at Brett, who was all smiles and good will. When a new group stumbled in through the door, though, he checked the IDs with a look that seemed to say “mess with me and you’ll get yours.” She felt surprised, suddenly, to think how comforted she felt by the fact that he was at there, protecting the place. Just now, it was Mellie’s turn to go onstage. Although she worked at the bar, she liked to sing and perform, and so the D.J. always gave her a few songs to fill the gaps in between volunteers. Ellie watched Mellie make her way through the crowded room, bumping into a few men she had seen drinking by their trucks during the rodeo. One of them kissed his fingers as she passed—an homage to how popular Mellie was with men from every walk of life. Mellie hopped lightly onstage and began to gyrate under the lights, holding the mic close to her chest in an ubersexy rendition of “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” complete with pelvic thrusts and sultry looks. Ellie smiled to herself. Mellie sure loved to put on a show, and Ellie had to admit that she did look good up there. She loved to see her sister at full tilt, enthusiastic and lost in the music. People always said Mellie was the passionate one, while Ellie was quiet and sensible. The bass revved up for the final chorus, and for a second, Ellie felt a little woozy. She thought she might throw up, but the feeling passed, and now the crowd was roaring, sending up thunderous applause while her sister gave small curtsies with bird-like delicacy onstage.

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The cheering was so loud, in fact, that as Mellie said something else into the mic, it was drowned out by the hooting and applause. It seemed to Ellie as though the cheering was coming from everywhere—underground, above her. It rang in her ears. Finally the room quieted down enough for Mellie to be heard. “And now, ladies and gentlemen,” she was saying, “we have a special act for you. Performing for the first time here at the Double Four…my sister, Ellie O’Shea!” Ellie could not believe her ears! Her sister knew how much she hated to sing in public. She wouldn’t even sing in the shower if she thought someone might be listening, but the crowd was pulsing now. A spotlight went out on her face, and she was being pushed forward by the throng of people. She shook her head, but it was no use. She was going onto that stage, whether she liked it or not. She stepped up onto the edge of the stage and her stomach reeled. That’s odd, Ellie thought, I don’t usually get butterflies. The feeling passed, though, and slowly she began to make her way across the platform, shading her eyes to the blinding glare of the spotlight, which followed her all the way up. “That’s right, girl!” her sister Mellie yelled into the mic. “C’mon up and get it done!” Then she turned to Ellie and whispered aside, “I know how much you want this.” Ellie looked out into the crowd. Because of the lights, she could only see the first half of the bar, but there were easily fifty people there. All of them expectant, waiting for the fireworks that Mellie had promised them. She felt a genuine chill travel upward from the pit of her stomach—a chill that was part fear, and part excitement. And then, she saw him. She had forgotten. Gray would be watching as well. A hot flush crawled over her body, tinged with arousal from knowing that these men would all be watching her. With a shaky hand, she took the mic from Mellie. Her face felt hot, but her hands were very cold.

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“Don’t worry,” Mellie whispered in her ear. “Just roll with it. You’ll be great!” With that, she patted her on the back and exited the stage, leaving Ellie alone in the lights, afraid to breathe too hard into the mic lest the crowd sense her nervousness. Music began pounding behind her. What had Mellie picked for her to sing? She hadn’t even thought to ask. Now it was too late. Her palms started to sweat, which was strange, because her hands were still cold as ice. Then she realized what it was. The song was “You’re Lookin’ at Country” by Loretta Lynn, one of her favorites. As soon as she thought it, she realized it was time to sing the opening lyrics. The words were trickling by on the little blue screen. …I like my lovin' done country style And this little girl would walk a country mile to find her a good old slow talkin' country boy… The words came out a little shaky, but her voice warmed up eventually, and a perfect Loretta twang drifted out of her mouth. During the chorus, she looked out over to the corner where Brett and his friend were standing. She could see the sly little smile on that stranger’s lips, and she gripped the microphone tightly, feeling the twitches of arousal below her worn jeans and sensible cotton panties. She was doing it! But then something happened. It was like something snapped in her. The words on the screen melted, and music behind her rose up in

a tremendous roar. She blinked her eyes heavily and swallowed

deeply. Something in her mind started spinning, and she could feel herself falling. The last thing she saw before she blacked out was Gray, standing against the door frame, his taut body bathed in a swath

of blue light.

* * * *

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Ellie awoke, feeling as though her mind was in a muffled blue trance. She could see familiar faces like Brett and his brother, Paul, standing nearby, deep, concerned frown lines plastered over their normally untroubled brows. She could see their lips moving and their Adam’s apples wagging frantically, as though they were yelling, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying. She had the sense that she was being carried, and she fought to stay awake, to figure out where it was she was going, but her thoughts were jumbled, and she couldn’t make any sense of where she was at all. Everything was veiled in fog. She felt an ache in the back of her head, and her eyelids felt heavy and coarse, as though they were covered in sand paper. She couldn’t stay awake so she drifted off again, into a dreamless sleep.

* * * *

Brett couldn’t even remember getting to the foot of the stage. It seemed like he was there instantly, putting his hand on Ellie’s heart, feeling her pulse. She was alive and breathing, at least. In fact, she seemed to be only in a deep, deep sleep. Mellie was there beside him. “Should we call an ambulance?” Brett asked. “Well, this has happened before,” Mellie said. “She might not have had enough to eat. She gets low blood sugar like this.” They both watched as her eyes flitted open a few times, then closed. “Well, first things first. We have to get her out of this place to somewhere more comfortable,” Brett said, surprised by how forcefully the words had come out sounding. “Okay. Should I tell the boss that I need to leave? I don’t even know where he is.” Her voice was choked and strained. “Oh, I shouldn’t have called her onstage like that!” “Don’t worry,” Brett said, patting her on the back.

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Finally, Ellie opened her eyes. “Where am I?” “You’re here at the bar. You just fainted. Can you tell how many fingers I’m holding up?” “Three. I’m fine,” she said. She wasn’t, though, and Brett could see that plain as day as she tried to stand up. “Don’t move,” Brett growled. “You’re coming to my house, no argument. Mellie, come for her after work.” Brett was surprised by the deep roar and commanding tone he had just taken on. Here he was, issuing orders! He was even more surprised by the deep feelings of protectiveness that sprang up inside him at seeing how vulnerable and weak Ellie was right now, feelings that went so much deeper than the desire he’d felt before. He picked her up easily and carried her out to the car. He could feel her tired muscles resisting at first, but she was too weak to protest. Her tired head sagged against his broad chest as she allowed herself to be carried, and he felt an intense protective aura surround his heart and a twinge of arousal surge into his cock.

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Chapter 3

Paul drove the car carefully, steering cautiously down the dirt roads he normally took at a raucous seventy miles per hour. He hadn’t taken a task—or a word his brother said—this seriously since he was a little child. He glanced pensively in the rearview mirror every few minutes. Ellie was there, her flushed forehead pressed against the cold glass, her face looking tired and gaunt. Even in the current circumstances, though, she seemed so beautiful. He watched the headlights from an oncoming car slide over her body and then remembered that he had better pay attention to the road. He was the youngest of the Mackey boys, and he was prone to excitement. He often got caught up in the moment—and he was caught up in it now. His fingers danced with little sparks of joy on the steering wheel, as thoughts crept into his mind, thoughts like how he’d love to brush just one hand against those marble cheeks, or to see the light glimmer in those sad eyes… He glanced over to make a turn and caught eyes with his brother Brett, who was riding in the passenger seat. He nodded at him. A few weeks ago, he and Brett would have likely fought to the death for the opportunity to help Ellie, to be near her, but then Brett had had the idea. Now they could ride respectfully together, knowing that she would be all of theirs if she so chose. He turned down the craggy driveway to their large one-hundred- acre ranch. Silently and carefully, he and Paul helped the woozy beauty out of the passenger seat and led her up the porch stairs and through the stately oak door of their ten-bedroom ranch house and

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then narrowly avoided tripping over a pair of muddy boots that sat in the middle of the front room. This place could really use a woman’s touch, he thought. Maybe, just maybe, this would be their chance.

* * * *

Ash woke up and dashed his face with cold water. It had been an eventful night, but now the first strands of gray light were just beginning to cut through the long Texas skyline. The end of January was approaching, and it had been an unusually cold winter. Sage, which was located on the Texas panhandle, saw a lot of nasty weather due to its northern location, but Ash didn’t mind the cold. He turned the doorknob and stepped out into the hallway, his muscles stiff from sleep. He could not help but remember that Ellie was sleeping in the guest room just across the hall. All night he had been plunged into fitful dreams. Even now, he found it hard to deny the erection that even whispering her name to himself caused. He could stand to be alone a little longer, however. He stepped out into the cold morning, the screen door snapping back behind him. His sockless feet were cold in his boots, but the coolness felt good. He felt awake and alert. This was the best frame of mind to be in when tracking. Ash had been practicing his tracking skills for months, following the shy deer on their twisted paths up the mountains. He walked slowly and quietly to the barn where Hellion was stabled. Whip-smart and sharp-sensed, she nickered at his approach, a small, nervous whinny. “Good girl,” he coaxed. It was funny. He liked the tough horses, the ones that needed breaking. People were like that, too. They just needed a little coaxing sometimes. Just like one strong-minded woman he could mention. He could tell that wooing Ellie was going to be a challenge, especially with the egos of the three Mackeys in the midst. She hadn’t shown them a hint of being onto them, despite the

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fact that the three of them used any excuse to spend more time around her. She seemed so damn determined to do everything the hard way. Always wanting to prove that she could take care of things herself when it was plain to see that she needed their help. He smiled to himself thinking how Ellie fought their advances, resisting his brother’s help even when she was semi-conscious. She was a hard nut to crack, all right, but he was up to the challenge. After all, he had to be. He needed to fulfill his part of the deal he’d struck with his brothers, and they weren’t going to let him off the hook for anything.

* * * *

Ellie woke up, and the first thing she realized was that she was in a strange bed. Then it all came flooding back to her. She had passed out and embarrassed herself in front of practically the whole town, and probably most of the rodeo crew, too. She had fainted before from low blood sugar, but it was strange that she had gotten like that last night since she’d had dinner at the bar beforehand. Maybe it was all the excitement of getting onstage. She shook her head, remembering how her sister had called her up. She might act angry, but deep down, she was sort of glad her sister had forced her to sing. Mellie knew how much Ellie truly craved the attention of the men around her. She felt groggy and tired, but the bed she’d slept in was very soft and much more comfortable than her own ancient twin mattress at home. The heat was turned on full blast the way she liked it, although for financial purposes, she never kept it that way at home. So, despite feeling a little woozy, she was actually quite snug and comfortable. She made her way slowly down the hallway, her feet reveling in the lush carpeting, stretching as she went down the stairs into an alcove filled with dazzling morning light from the skylight above. Something sure smelled good.

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She turned the corner and glanced into the kitchen. What she saw almost stopped her heart. There, in torn jeans and nothing else, stood the handsome cowboy, Brett’s friend, from the night before. He was taut but not bulky, and his shaggy hair, mussed from the night before, fell into his eyes. His tanned olive skin fairly glowed beneath the stove lights where he stood, spatula in hand. He looked over at her and grinned. It was a smile she would not soon be forgetting, the dimpled mischievous kind that made her heart skip a beat. “Hey, sleepyhead,” he said. “Like bacon?” “Wha—what are you doing here?” “Just another house guest. Kinda like you, come to think of it,” he said, pointing the spatula at her. She could only gape at him. How was it possible that she had been rescued by Brett only to end up sleeping in the same house as this intriguing man? “Come on,” he said. “Here, take a spoon. I could use your help.” Ellie obeyed mutely, still reeling from the odd coincidence. “I’m not much of a cook,” she said. Actually, that was an understatement. The last time she had tried to make anything, she’d sent the volunteer fire department out to their house. “That’s okay. You got me. World-class chef extraordinaire, esquire,” he said, grinning and flipping an egg up from the carton. He caught it in the other hand, and, in one fell swoop, cracked it against the side of the pan. “Picked up a few tricks on the road from diner cooks. Only people I’ve got to talk to sometimes,” he said, in mock- dramatic tones. She moved in next to him. “Well, what should I do?” “Here,” he said. “Stand right here and stir.” She did as she was told. His good humor was infectious, and she was starting to feel more at ease even though she was standing right over her nemesis, the hated stove. He picked up his spatula and started flipping bacon. They worked in silence for a few minutes, the

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warmth of the stove radiating over everything. Here and there, he hummed a few bars of some song, something she thought she might have heard before but couldn’t place. “Good food for a day like this. Ready to graduate?” he asked, pouring some pancake batter onto the hot griddle. “Huh? Oh no, I can’t do that. Last time I tried to cook pancakes I got batter on our ceiling!” He laughed. “I’ll take my chances. Ceilings got to get cleaned some time, right?” She picked up the bowl and started pouring it, dribbling it really, onto the pan. “No, not like that. Here,” he said, moving over her. “Like this.” As he pressed up against her back, she could feel his stiff cock tightening against the fly of his jeans, which made her pussy melt. His arms were over hers, his hands covering her own. “Here,” he said again. “Slowly, like this. Measured.” With his hands still over hers, he poured the batter quickly, and set it back down again. She pulled out of his grip and turned to face him, still sheltered by his embrace. She looked into his piercing blue eyes. All the humor had gone out of them, replaced now by the serious hunger of desire. He pulled her in close, holding her now at the small of her back. Gently, he tilted her face upward by her chin. His hands were rough and calloused from years of rodeo riding, but his touch was tender. He gazed into her eyes for one moment, and planted his lips firmly on hers, taking her bottom lip gingerly between his teeth and flicking his tongue across it. “That’s just a taste,” he said. His hands moved to the back of her head. She winced in pain, and he frowned. “Ellie,” he said, drawing back. “You’ve got a huge knot back there. I know Brett said you didn’t want to, but you should really go see a doctor.”

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Ellie rubbed the back of her head, feeling a sharp flush of anger rise from her feet upward. They had been talking about her, about what she should do? “And you,” she said, “should mind your own business.” “Ellie—” he said, and stopped. Ellie looked over to where his gaze had gone and felt all the blood drain out of her face. There stood Brett, arms folded, brow set. “How long have you been standing there, Brett?” he asked. “Long enough,” he said, his voice a cower-inducing growl, his eyes set stonily on Gray. Ellie couldn’t take anymore of this. She raced upstairs, found her shoes, coat, and purse, and came back downstairs. “I’m calling my sister,” she said.

* * * *

Ash came back into the house, shrugging off the cold from the morning ride. He was looking forward to the warm embrace of their welcoming kitchen, and even more to seeing Ellie awake, tousled and well rested. When he got in the front door, however, he saw Brett and Gray standing across the hall from each other, arms crossed. Ellie was nowhere to be found. “What’s going on?” he asked, pulling off his coat and dropping it on the stair post. “Yeah, what’s up?” Paul asked. He had come into the room from the hallway that led back to his bedroom, and he was rubbing his eyes, looking sleepy. “Gray and I are trying to have a conversation here,” Brett said, a tad menacingly. They looked like two bulls squaring off. Gray took two steps forward so that he was standing so close their chests practically

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bumped into one another. “No conversation to have,” he said. “The woman has made it clear who she wants.” Ash jumped in between them, shoving his brother a little with his shoulder as he did. “Brett—” Brett shot him a look. “This man wants to take my woman, and you want me to back off?” Your woman? Does she know that?” Gray asked. “Don’t you mean our woman?” Ash asked, shooting a scowl back at Brett. “Wait a minute. Our woman? What is going on here?” Gray asked. Ash studied him for a second. “We all want Ellie, so we’ve decided that we are going to share her. All the Mackey brothers.” “Well, that sounds fine and dandy. But doesn’t she get a say in this whole thing?” Gray said, a dubious thread running through his voice. “Don’t be an idiot,” Brett spat. “We’re not cavemen here. Of course we’re going to respect her wishes. But our goal is to make it very enticing for her to be with us. All of us.” “I’m not being an idiot,” Gray said. “I just don’t see you guys doing much to win her over, that’s all.” “Oh yeah? Are you questioning my methods, Gray?” Brett asked, looking Gray straight in the eyes. “Yes, I am,” Gray responded, shooting him back a look of death. “Guys!” Paul cried. “Let’s not fight about it. Why can’t we all share Ellie?” “I’m not sharing a woman with this maniac,” Gray said. “Very well, then. I guess we’re opponents,” Brett answered. “Okay. Whoever can win her over first, and get her to agree to spend her life with him, gets her.” “Will do,” Brett answered. “But just remember, there’s four of us, and only one of you.” “Let the games begin,” Gray replied.

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Ash wasn’t sure he liked where this was going.

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Chapter 4

Derby picked his suitcase up from the baggage claim, pulling his oversized hat down as he did. He was used to flying because he was literally in a different city every week, but this was the first time he’d ever checked a bag. He was going to need a lot of luggage this time. He planned to stay for a while. He’d made his millions teaching professionals how to manage their businesses more efficiently. He’d spent almost ninety percent of his life after college in high-rises and skyscrapers. He had a kitchen counter that almost never got used, and his wardrobe consisted almost entirely of pressed suits. In a word, he was tired. He was like many kids in Sage—he’d spent his boyhood exploring the Texas scrubland on horseback. He’d always had the feeling, however, that he wanted to explore the world. The fast-paced world of business intrigued him. Seeking success and power, he had turned his back on his Texas heritage. He had studied hours, practicing his non-regional diction, so that he could lose his southern twang. He had his hands manicured and massaged away the rough calluses he had gained riding horses and immunizing calves. He’d gotten used to the stifling choke of silk ties. He’d learned the right fork to eat salad with, the proper amount to tip a valet. In all that time, though, he’d felt like a part of himself was missing. Especially several years ago, when his father had died. The distance that had developed between him and his brothers grew immensely then. Brett was angry that he had left for so long, only returning briefly for his father’s funeral. “Business isn’t everything, Derby,” he had said. “You’ve missed a lot.” Derby remembered how

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angry he had been when Brett had said this—he was just about to publish his first book, and the press on it was really hot. Business was everything to him then. He still remembered the hurt that registered in Brett’s eyes when he’d accused Derby of not even caring what went on in Sage anymore. And Derby, feeling like everything in Texas reminded him of his father, agreed. He didn’t want to know anything about Sage at all. In the past few months, however, he’d had cause to reconsider. His last book had been panned. It wasn’t exactly a financial blow—he was set for life. Still, it had confirmed a sneaking suspicion that he had been harboring for a while—that he had become useless. American professionals were tired of him. It was the first time he had failed, and the experience had done something to him. Making matters worse, his failure had made him the latest tabloid sensation. He’d been caught drunk when he first found out about his lost book contract, and had punched the tabloid photographer in the face. He’d spent his night in jail and paid his fines, but now, all his interactions in the city were made out to be something more sinister than they were. A handshake with a young protégée he had been mentoring before his fall was a drug deal, a picture snapped of him with his arm around a woman was framed as a prostitution bid. He felt doubtful and jumpy in conversations, where before he had been self-assured and suave, and now, as he was nearing thirty-five, he felt like he’d made some kind of mistake. He was a stranger to virtually everyone he saw. He had no wife, no love interests, no children, no contact with his family. He felt tired and sad. The feeling had come on very strongly in the past few months. He had begun having vivid dreams. In them, he was back on the hillsides he remembered from his boyhood. He felt more vital than he had for years with the sun shining hot on his head and a dappling of bluebonnets all over the ground. In front of him was a house—his parents’ house in Sage. He looked down and saw the most beautiful, warm, welcoming blonde-haired woman he’d ever seen. She was

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carrying a basket of flowers. When she saw him, she put the basket at her feet and began to wave at him, encouraging him to come. He began to run toward her. At that point, he always woke up. After his book tour had been cancelled, he found himself with plenty of time and nothing to fill it with. He hated to sit alone in his apartment. He had been running around at such a hectic pace that it seemed he no longer knew how to relax. Just sitting made him nervous. This was why he had decided to come back to Texas. He was ashamed to admit it, but the country had been a better place for him, even if it meant facing incredible sadness. He had to get back to those warm feelings from before. Most of all, though, he had the feeling that the dreams were signaling something very important—that the woman he desired might just be waiting for him in Texas, might even be someone he had always known. He wasn’t going to go back to his brothers just yet though. He hadn’t spoken to them in years, and he wanted some time to ask around and get to know what they were up to before he reintroduced himself. He was embarrassed of his circumstances, and he knew he would have to admit to Brett that he was right. It didn’t pay to put your career before your family. Brett had a temper though, so Derby wanted to wait until just the right time to apologize and reconcile. He’d just have to hole up in Sage and wait to make his move.

* * * *

Ellie told herself that she was glad to be back at her house and her work. Yet somehow, in the past couple of days, mucking stalls and feeding the horses at the rodeo had seemed to have lost a little spark for her. Even playing with Tangerine seemed a little bland and old, though she was glad for the horse’s company.

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She had gone to the doctor’s like Gray had suggested, where they had had her take a urine and blood test. The knot was nothing to worry about though, according to Doctor Steiner. The idea that she could have been drugged was disconcerting, but she was used to living with stress. Still, she was studiously avoiding going to the Double Four. She didn’t want to see Brett again, and most of all, she didn’t want to see Gray. She didn’t want them to know they had been right in their concerns. Her sister had been working a lot, so she wasn’t seeing much of her, either. She felt lonely. These thoughts weighed heavily on her as she pulled up to the barn. The rodeo was almost over now, and the sign that had stood so brightly a few weeks ago was hanging and bedraggled. She sighed and pulled herself out of her truck. It was a lean time for Ellie, since she’d have to rely on her house visits as her sole income, and that combined with Mellie’s pay from the bar was sometimes barely enough to pay the bills. She had been taking care of her duties at the barn as quickly as possible, feeding and caring for horses and then leaving, trying to avoid the onslaught of crowds, and of course, the riders themselves. Carl had been giving her a hard time about it, however. He’d said that money was tight, and if she wanted to keep her position, she’d better act like she liked being there. Still, Ellie couldn’t bring herself to stay any longer than necessary, and she certainly was having a hard time acting cheerful. She had thought a lot about that night when she’d fallen down and the next morning. Usually when she fainted like that, it was because she hadn’t eaten well. But she’d had a huge dinner—chicken fried steak, a Double Four specialty—just before she’d gone onstage. It was strange, but she didn’t need a man sticking his nose in and telling her how to handle it. She was a grown woman capable of managing her own life. That’s just what all men wanted anyway, to tell her how to run her life. Although, if she was honest with herself, she knew that

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it would be a great relief to have some help every now and then. She had worn herself ragged trying to keep her family’s ranch up to snuff, and she knew it. And the taxes on the old houses were getting out-of- hand. There was a small part of her that thought it might be nice to have some support, financial and otherwise, and she couldn’t deny that thoughts of Brett and Gray, bending her over, carrying her out of the bar, made her pussy tingle with excitement. Still, she needed her freedom. She needed to know that she would be respected and that people knew that she could handle herself. Brett just wanted to rule her. Oh, it made her so mad! Still, she couldn’t deny that his protective nature was intriguing. With this final thought, she finished shoving oats into the last feedbox. She slumped down on an old saddle that sat on the hard floor of the tack room and began reading a paperback she had carried with her, as she was wont to do. It was a particularly good novel, and she was so enveloped in the story that she hardly noticed Brett walking down the aisle of the barn until he sauntered up next to her. “Excuse me, miss,” he said. “Can you tell me where the lady who cares for these animals is? I’ve heard she’s exceptionally beautiful.” He laughed. “Oh!” she said, looking up, startled. “Brett. I should’ve known.” “I’ve been…well, I’ve been missing you, Ellie. You haven’t been coming to the Double Four.” “I haven’t been coming for a reason. I’ve been trying to avoid you.” Ellie was surprised at the irritation in her voice. “Avoid me? Why?” “Why?” Ellie stood. “Because you just want to run my life. You think I can’t handle myself, and now you want to tell me how to live.” She could feel the anger beginning to course through her, the flush of heat on her face that meant she might soon be losing control of the situation.

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“Oh Ellie,” Brett said, looking mollified. “I don’t think that at all. I have so much respect for you.” His voice came out in a whisper. “You’re doing things that I could never do. I’m too headstrong for my own good.” This admission stung Ellie to her core, and his apology shocked her. It was just the thing she’d needed to hear all those years ago. She looked at his downcast eyes, which seemed to reflect genuine regret and admiration, and suddenly, without planning it, she was kissing him. He gave her a surprised look, and began kissing her back, hard. His meek manner turned suddenly, and he was domineering and unabashed. He pressed himself against her, and she could feel his erect cock straining the seams of his rough jeans. He had her pinned against the wall, and he pulled her face toward his with his rough hands, kissing all the way down her neck to her shoulders. With haste, he was undressing her, pulling her shirt over her head. He stepped back as he saw her full breasts weighting the cups of her silky bra. He stood for a second, just admiring her. Then he was on her like a tiger. In a second, he had her down on the floor, her body pushed against the saddle. The novel tumbled to the side. He kissed her stomach and pulled one breast from the bra, running his sly tongue across it with a forceful yet soft expertise that made her cunt moist and excited. He pushed her back so that she was sitting with her legs splayed across the end of the saddle. “I’m going to warm you up first,” he said, breathily. Slowly, he toyed with her, sliding his tongue across her legs, taking small nips at the bit of flesh at the inside of her thighs. He came back up, still on his knees, and stripped off his shirt. The site was gasp-worthy. His flesh was hard and perfect underneath his tight western shirt. He stripped down to the bone, and Ellie got her first glimpse of his gigantic cock, so engorged it was practically pulsating. He slid back down to her pussy, and slowly massaged her with one finger over her panties, which were slick with her excitement.

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Occasionally, he slid an eager finger under the elastic and into her, taunting her, teasing her. “Oh, Brett!” she cried, huskily. “Please. Fuck me.” “Wait,” he said. “I’m not sure if you’re ready to be fucked yet. I’ll have to do a little more inspection here.” He worked her panties off her and flung them away, then moved back on her like a hungry animal. Slowly, torturously slow, he began to lap in luxurious circles around her clit. Her cunt was practically vibrating she was so close. She squirmed, wanting the torture to end, the licking to become violent and deep. “Oh, Brett?” she asked demurely, playing right into the game, her willful mind so overcome with need that she was ready to do anything to be sated. “Do you think that I’m ready yet?” “Good girl,” Brett said. “You’re a very good girl to ask.” He gave her a playful slap on her ass and moved his tongue more deeply into the folds of her pussy. He was hitting her spot. Ellie began to feel as though he was touching her very core, the absolute center of her body. Her licked in vertical strokes up and down, pressing deeply into her with his tongue. She couldn’t hold it anymore. She began to twist and shake, and her pussy spasmed. After a few moments, when she came out of the haze of her orgasm, he stood up and gave himself a few jerks. His cock was still straight at attention. He produced a condom from somewhere and put in on in a flash. He pulled her roughly over the saddle so that her back was splayed against it and pushed deeply into her pussy. It was the one-two punch she needed. Urgently, he rode her, filling her so deeply with his huge cock, touching her in places she had never before been touched. She could feel his need pushing him on, feel her own second orgasm looming. She breathed heavily, lustfully into his ear. His weight on her was too much. His pushing became automatic, as though some other presence was spurring him on. She felt the world drop away from her, and she kissed him hungrily as the most intense orgasm she had ever had

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came crashing down around her. He finished at the same time, then drew her in toward him, their bodies still connected. He held her tightly. “I am never going to let you go,” he said. “Oh, Brett,” she answered. He rolled off her and lay next to her for a moment. “That was very good,” he said. “Yes,” she answered. “I guess I have been wanting that for longer than I realized.” He stroked her face a few delicate times with his hands. “Well, I’m glad you know it now,” he said lovingly. He stood up and began buttoning his jeans back up. “Do you have to go?” she asked. “Unfortunately, I do,” he said. Then his voice took on a forceful note. “I’ll be back though. I have plans for you. Next time, we’ll be doing this my way.” “Plans for me?” Ellie asked dubiously. “What sort of plans? And what does ‘doing this my way’ mean?” “That’s for me to know, and you to find out,” he said, authoritatively. Ellie was about to argue with him, but before she could say anything, he was gone.

* * * *

“I dunno. That sounds like it might be kind of hot.” After the bar opened, at around six, Ellie had headed back to the Double Four to tell Mellie about her interlude with Brett. “Doesn’t it sound a little…controlling? I mean, his way? What does that mean? And this is Brett we’re talking about, Mellie. You remember what he did at our prom,” Ellie said. “It’s only controlling if you don’t agree to it. Personally, I think it might be kind of nice to just lay back and have someone take care of

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me. In more ways than one,” she added, winking at Ellie. “Plus, James turned out to be a bad guy, so his protective instincts were kind of right there.” Ellie could not believe her ears. Here she had grown into adulthood hard and fast, taking care to make sure her parents’ ranch survived—which it barely was—and that she had all her finances in order so that she could take care of herself and her sister. And now everyone, it seemed, wanted her to give it up for a couple of cowboys with raging hormones. Well, she wasn’t going to do it! “I can’t believe you, Mellie. You just want a man to make it all go away,” Ellie said, swigging the last of her soda and standing up. “No. I just know how to take a hint. Listen to what your body is telling you. You’re tired, and you haven’t had a thing to yourself in over ten years. I know that, and you know it. Stop fighting. Just let the man in, for God’s sake.” Ellie shot her sister a furious look. At that moment, Brett walked in from the back room of the bar. Ellie hadn’t known he was back there, and she felt more awkward than ever. As usual, he wore his customary grin. “Anything I can get for you, Ellie?” Brett asked, shooting her a knowing wink. “You know how I like to take care of my girls.” “I can take care of myself, thank you very much,” Ellie said, shooting them both a look of death. In a huff, she turned and walked down the bar to the exit, ready to jump into her truck and send the gravel flying as she sped away. Instead, however, she was caught by a hand on her elbow just outside the entrance to the bar. “Gray,” she murmured. She looked down. She would never have admitted it, but there was a part of her that felt guilty for the way she had walked out on him the other day. He had been right about the doctor, although she hated that he’d had to tell her to go. Thankfully the doctor’s visit had been uneventful. And after she had cooled off,

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she remembered how kind and fun he had seemed when they made breakfast together. “Ellie, come back in the bar and sit with me. Please.” She looked, finally, into his eyes, and she saw the trouble within them. “I can’t, Gray.” She was determined to stay strong, although she could feel her resistance fading more and more as she gazed into the seriousness of his eyes. He ran a hand along her jaw line and brushed away a loose strand of her hair. She could no longer resist him, and she leaned in to his touch. The air was tinged with cold, but here, next to him, the intensity of the mingling heat from their bodies was nearly tropical. She urged her body closer to him. Their lips found each other, and in one fell swoop, he drew her onto him, her legs against his. As their embrace tightened, she could feel the substantial bulge in his Wranglers, indicating the evidence of a massive cock. It awoke a floodgate of desire in her trembling pussy, and in that moment, all her sense fled her, and she just wanted him. Pulling her into the dark behind the building, he began kissing her deeply, insistently working his way down the arch of her neck, trailing a finger over her breasts and especially her nipples, which stood at full attention behind her loose cotton shirt. She squirmed against him, wanting to become even closer to his stiffness, and he put a supportive hand under her ass and drew her closer. The sensation of his hands touching her there sent little shocks up and down her body, and she placed her trembling hands against his chest, which was tough as rock. Farther and farther, her quivering hands explored the terrain of his torso, following the narrowing path of his sturdy ab muscles down to the rough fabric of the waistband of his jeans. His cock pulsed twice against her thigh, which practically caused a flood in her panties. Inexpertly, she undid the button on his fly and slid her fingers timidly into his jeans so that she could lay hands upon the massiveness of his erection. She looked up at him and

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kissed him deeply, then drew a long breath, ready to take the fullness of that cock into her mouth and wrap her lips tightly about it. A car turning in to the parking lot sounded in her ears and stopped Ellie short. It was as though a spell was broken. How could she have been so stupid? She hardly knew this man! “Ellie, what’s wrong?” Gray asked, his eyes full of sincere concern. She frowned, angry that he didn’t know right away. “You’re my problem! You…you’ve…bewitched me or something.” “Ellie,” Gray said, his eyes laughing. “I’m no witch. You just can’t fight what’s right.” “Well,” she replied, “you’re right about one thing. I can’t fight it. So you’d better just stay away from me.” She felt a twinge of regret as she said it, but she resented Gray for acting as though he knew what was right for her, just like he had when he told her to go to the doctor’s. She tried to break away from him, but he caught her wrist. She was surprised by how strong his grip was. He was well muscled, but lean and not bulky, so she hadn’t expected him to be capable of such force. She shivered, just thinking about how powerful he was. “Ellie, please,” he pleaded. “Stay. I’ll take you for a horse ride later.” “I don’t ride horses!” Ellie fairly shouted at him as she finally managed to pull herself free. She stormed off across the parking lot. As she did so, she got a glimpse at the driver in the pickup that had pulled in, breaking up their tryst. It was Paul, eyes downcast. She wondered how much of that he had just seen.

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Chapter 5

That night, Ellie was awakened by her sister shaking her side insistently and urgently. Her face was drawn. “Wake up,” she urged. “Wha–What’s going on?” Ellie sat up, rubbing her eyes. “It’s Brett. He just called. There’s some sort of emergency in their barn, one of their horses was hurt. They need you to come.” Ellie pushed the comforter back and sat on the edge of the bed, blinking, trying to process the information. “Which horse was it?” she asked “Cinnamon.” “Oh God. Cinnamon. No wonder they need my help.” The horse was known to be skittish and a bit wild. “Do you know what happened?” “Not really,” Mellie replied. “Just that the horse was hurt pretty bad.” Ellie’s mind instantly leapt to the worst conclusions. What if it was untreatable and the horse had to be put down? Cinnamon was a tough cookie, but there was a sweetness under her skittish ways. Ellie has worked with her before, and she felt a nervous shiver make its way up her spine. She pulled on her jeans over the boxers she normally slept in and threw a sweater on. The floor was cold on her bare feet, and it was difficult to move fast, feeling logy as she did, but there might be an animal’s life at stake. She pulled her boots and coat on in a rush and hurried out the door, fumbling with the keys as she went. “Ellie!” Mellie yelled at her from the door. “Be careful!”

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“I will,” Ellie called, just then noticing the few flakes of snow that were carefully sifting down all around her.

* * * *

The roads were getting icy, and Ellie had to steer carefully to avoid plowing her truck into a ditch. After a very long crawl down the country road, she managed to pull herself into the Mackey’s driveway. As she neared the barnyard and the adjoining pasture, she could see that all three Mackey brothers, plus Gray, were there, standing in a loose circle around the horse, whose ears were pressed flat back against its head. She pulled up sharply, sending sprays of gravel flying and causing Cinnamon to rear up on her hind legs. At this, Gray and Paul jumped backwards, and Ash, who was holding the lead rope, was almost knocked to his feet by the swift bucking of the horse. Brett moved quickly up to her truck and opened the door as she unbuckled. “Ellie, it’s bad! I woke up hearing the craziest howling, and then Cinnamon was whinnying and bucking. You should see the wound. It’s a deep cut. We can’t even get her to calm down enough to lead her into the barn. Someone must have forgotten to lock the stall door,” he added, shooting a condemning look Paul’s way. Ellie jumped down from the truck and surveyed the situation. “All right,” she yelled. “Paul, Ash, Gray, get out of there. You’re just scaring her by circling her like that.” “Ellie, if I let her go, she’s gonna bolt,” Ash said in his raspy voice. “We’ll never get her back.” “Ash, please. Let me handle this. We’ve got to get her calmed down enough so that we can get her into the barn.” There was something sharp and commanding in her tone, but surprisingly tender, as well.

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“Guys, please. Let Ellie drive. She’s the horse expert here,” Brett shouted. Immediately, all the Mackey boys obeyed. Ash dropped the rope, and the three of them walked a safe distance away from the horse. Only Gray remained. “Ellie,” he said when she was near enough. “Let me help you. I’ve got a lot of experience around scared wild things, if you haven’t noticed.” She thought it over for a second. “Okay,” she said. “We’ll do it as a team. Go get the lead rope, but don’t move too fast.” Crouching as he went, Gray walked smoothly over to where the end of the rope was dangling in the dust of the yard. He picked up the tail end quickly and expertly and stood, awaiting Ellie’s instruction. Cautiously, Ellie opened the gate to the yard. The hinges, wet from the snow starting to drift around them, let loose a loud groan, and Cinnamon backed up a few paces, baring a great row of crushing teeth as she did. “Shhh, sweetheart. You’re okay. You’re okay.” Ellie began chanting the words like a mantra. In her loose sweater and coat, she ought to have been cold, but she couldn’t even feel it. She was doing what she loved, and even in the tense strain of the moment, she could feel love radiating for the animal that needed her. “You’re gonna be okay,” Ellie continued, and she took a few paces forward. To her surprise, the horse did not bolt, but continued watching her warily from the corner of its eye, tossing its head a few times. Slowly but surely, she continued whispering the soft words as she moved, one step at a time, toward the middle of the ring where the horse stood. Soon, she was near enough to Cinnamon to almost touch her. The horse’s hot, labored breaths came out in snorts. Suddenly, the animal turned, and Ellie caught a glimpse of the wound, which had been hidden from her previously. She almost gasped out loud, then remembered herself and stifled the noise. A long, angry, red wound

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stretched from the top of the horse’s hip to the end of its flank. What could have done this? she wondered. With quivering hands, she reached out to Cinnamon and began gently petting the white spot in the middle of the horse’s forehead. Slowly, the horse seemed to relax. She could feel the tense energy dissipate, and the horse’s ears moved away from its neck, although she still sensed the pain from the wound. Gray had moved up behind her, and she turned to him. “Tell Brett to get me some carrots or sugar from the house,” she said in a near- whisper. In the same swift but careful stride, Gray walked over to the edge of the fence, where the Mackey brothers were standing, watching with ashen faces and searching eyes. Ellie watched him leave. She suddenly felt a lump gathering in her throat. She hoped that Gray lived up to his claims about managing wild things. Brett left and returned with three carrots. All the while, Ellie petted and soothed the spooked horse. Gray returned and began to pet the horse gently as well. Ellie drank deeply of his countenance as he did so, and she didn’t fail to notice the sweet concentration that he applied to the horse. She had an acute, furtive wish that she was the animal under those fingers, responding to the touch of those rough hands. She remembered their sensual kiss in the kitchen and felt the urge to lean in close to this man, although she knew so little about him, only that she wanted him. They fed the horse bits of carrots, alternating feeding with petting, until the animal seemed relaxed enough to be lead back into the barn. Ellie and Gray led the horse, still cooing, and Brett walked swiftly over to the edge of the barn and filled a bucket with water. Ash and Paul closed the heavy door behind them. With the same gentle, calm movements, Ellie bathed the wound while Gray and Brett continued petting the animal. It was a bad cut. She put some antiseptic ointment around the edges. Since the cut was on the upper part of the body, she didn’t want to dress the wound.

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After they had the horse cleaned and moved into its own stall with fresh bedding, Paul and Ash walked back into the house. Before they went though, Paul turned to Ellie, and with eyes that were almost childlike, he asked, “Do you think she’s going to be okay, Ellie?” He was so sweet she wanted to rush over to him and tousle his hair. She had to remind herself that he was a grown man. So she just said, “I don’t know. We’ll do our damndest.” Then Brett, Gray, and Ellie were left alone in the barn. They stayed with the horse late into the night until they could see the first edges of light creeping into the horizon and their joints were stiff from crouching in the barn. “Well,” Brett said, “I suppose we ought to go get a few hours of shut-eye.” “Yes,” agreed Gray. “Come on, Ellie.” He put his arm around her, Brett eying them as he did. “Come here, Brett,” Ellie said and snaked her arm around his muscled waist. They walked like that, arm in arm, out of the barn and into the yard. The snow was coming down thick. “Ellie, you’d better stay here for the night. The roads could be impassable,” Brett said. Normally, she might have argued. Just then, she was so tired and worn out that she didn’t want to fight. Besides, she would just have to come back in a few hours anyway to check on the horse. “All right, if you say so, Brett,” she murmured, her sleepy eyelids weighing heavily. They made their way up the path to the back door of the house. About mid-way through, though, a sudden flash caught Ellie’s eye, and she glanced up from the ground in time to see a large animal loping at full speed across the yard and up to the road beyond. The huge, dusky figure turned and gave them a long, haunted look before it darted into the woods and disappeared. “What was that?” Ellie asked, afraid to breathe.

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“Mountain lion,” Brett answered. “No doubt about it. That’s what got Cinnamon.” “Good God,” Ellie said, feeling weak. She couldn’t hold back the shiver that erupted down her spine. “Come on. Let’s get you warmed up,” Paul said.

* * * *

Brett walked up beside Gray. “Hang back for second,” he said, catching Gray’s arm for a second. They let Ellie, Ash, and Paul gain a bit, and then Brett said,

“We’ve been friends for a long time, right?” “Right,” Gray agreed. “And it’s not right for friends to fight. Besides, I saw how you and Ellie worked together to handle that horse.” “What are you saying, Brett?”

“I

want you to join us. The Mackey brothers plus Gray. Plus

Ellie.”

“If Ellie agrees to it,” Gray corrected.

“I have a feeling she will,” Brett said. “Thanks to you.”

Gray looked at him for a second then extended his hand. The two shook.

“I have a good feeling, too.”

* * * *

A weak winter sun was shining well overhead in the East when

Brett finally woke up. The night before played over again in his mind’s eye. How good it had felt to have Ellie near, how expertly she and Gray had handled the horse. But also, how all five of them had worked as a team when working together was the only way to save Cinnamon.

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After helping Cinnamon, they had all come into the living room to have a cup of tea and warm up before retiring to their separate rooms. Looking around, however, he realized that they had all fallen asleep in the living room, too tired to make it up the stairs and into the bedroom. His eye meandered over Ellie’s sweet, beautiful countenance as she slept peacefully, cuddling on one of the couches. A few stray locks of her long, blonde hair had wound loosely around her front, so that she seemed to be framed with the gold. A few streaks of light lay across her back. Brett felt an ache deep in his heart. At her feet, curled close for warmth, was Gray. Looking farther, he saw a figure crouched on the floor and realized it was Ash, curled in a tight ball, with a heavy blanket just barely covering his lanky legs. Directly above him was Paul, snuggled into the old loveseat. They all looked so peaceful there. All together. Like a great big family. Brett looked back at Ellie and realized she was awake. She looked at him with large, tired eyes. “Hello, sleepyhead,” he whispered to her as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. “Good morning, Brett,” she whispered. She stood up, draping the afghan around her for warmth as she did, and came over to the side of the armchair where he had spent the night, and pecked him playfully on the head. “Should we get breakfast started?” she asked. “Breakfast!” He laughed. “It’s nearly one. Anyway, I have other ideas.” She shot him a steady look and held it for what felt like hours. Then she nodded, and allowed him to lead her up the stairs and into his bedroom. He helped her up into the bed since it was particularly high. “Move over,” he said playfully and then pecked her on the cheek. She scooted over, making room for him on the right, her eyes blinking back sleep. She nestled her head against Brett’s broad, strong chest. Brett felt a great need to protect her overwhelming him. He

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knew that he and Gray were supposed to be competing for Ellie, but right now it didn’t seem to matter. It just felt good to be near her. He leaned over and kissed her deeply, the kiss awakening his cock, which pressed neatly against her side. Ellie’s eyes popped open. She must have felt his arousal because the surprise faded from her eyes, and she began kissing back. There was something needy and hungry about their kisses, as though something hallowed had been released. Brett dragged his hand across her breasts, underneath the large T-shirt she was sleeping in. Her skin was so soft that it felt like putting his hand into a pail of cream. Slowly, he worked his way down her front to the thong she wore underneath the T-shirt. He nipped her neatly on her ear and drew himself toward her, pushed his finger teasingly into the entrance of her pussy. Once again, her eyes popped open, then narrowed, and she moved desperately against his fingers. The aching in his cock was deep, and he wanted to rip her clothes off and take her right then, right there. Her cunt was practically begging for him to do it. He could feel the moistness of her pussy as he slid his finger slowly, slowly, in and out. He could tell that she was getting close now. She threw her head back and closed her eyes tightly. But Brett wasn’t going to let her come that soon. He withdrew his fingers suddenly. Just then, the sound of the rest of the men waking below them could be heard. His own cock was pleading with him to continue, as well, but he didn’t want it to be this way. He had agreed to share her, after all, and he was struck with a sudden thought that Gray and his brothers should also be included in this moment. He gave her one last deep, satisfying kiss, and shoved himself gently away. “I don’t know if you’re ready for that yet,” he said. She shot him a quizzical look, and then propped herself up on one elbow and said, “You speak in riddles, Brett. What does that mean

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‘not ready’? And what did you mean the other day when you said we would be doing this your way next time? “I just meant,” Brett said, adopting the tone of someone who is utterly comfortable with a position of authority, “that from now on, if we’re going to continue, there have to be rules.” “Rules?” Ellie asked, her eyes as wide as saucers. “Yes. I like to be the one calling the shots in the bedroom. So, there are rules if you want to be with me.” “Like what kind of rules?” she asked, and he could read the interest in her voice. The bang of pots and pans sounded in the kitchen. “Later,” he said to her in a conciliatory tone, kissing her on the forehead gently She nodded as though she understood him instantly. He held his hand out as though to help her down from the bed, and instead, in one fell swoop, picked her up as though she weighed nothing at all and began carrying her down the stairs. And in this manner, they approached the kitchen, where a meal was already underway.

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Chapter 6

Ellie could smell the bacon from the hallway as she walked down the plush carpeting. It’s funny, she reflected, just a few days ago I was waking up the exact same way. Somehow, though, everything that had happened the night before had seemed to change her feelings about the Mackey brothers—and about Gray. The way that they had all worked together to help Cinnamon made her feel warm and light, but thinking of this, her mind turned to confusion and anxiety. Who would she choose, if it came down to it? Gray was cheerful and good-natured—just remembering their pancake-making brought a smile to her face. Brett was controlling, sure, but she also remembered, with a deep erotic shiver, how that controlling nature might be satisfying and sexy in the bedroom. And again, she knew that she had felt better when she had thought that he was protecting the bar. Even Paul and Ash were intriguing. She knew that they had both helped to get her home from the bar, and she had seen both their pleading eyes the night before when Cinnamon was hurt. She just wouldn’t know where to start. She walked into the foyer, noting the pictures of the Mackey brothers as little children on the wall as she went. The gilt frames looked expensive. The Mackeys always had nice things. She had to admit it certainly was nice experiencing a brief moment in the lap of luxury, even if it was just for a little while. She smiled to herself as she caught a glimpse of the activities going on in the kitchen. At the stove stood Ash and Gray. Ash expertly flipped great slabs of bacon, and she noted, with a little flourish of appreciation, how toned his arms were. Gray was next to

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him, pressing a spatula against an omelet that was just the perfect shade of golden yellow. They chatted absently as they went on about the snow and what the weatherman had said. Meanwhile, Paul was finishing setting the table. Ellie noticed that he had taken the time to clip a few orchids that had been blossoming in a corner and placed them in a vase. They were using the good silver and antique plates with little bunches of rosebuds on them. Cloth napkins had been placed to the side. They had really put out quite a spread! Brett followed her, and took his place at the head of the table. When she walked in the door, all four men looked up with welcoming, smiling faces. “Hello, sleepyhead!” Gray said, cheerfully, flipping an omelet as he spoke. “Good morning!” Paul said, pulling out a chair for her. “Oh no. Let me help you guys,” Ellie said. “What can I do?” “No you don’t,” Brett said, a touch of his commanding presence coming into his voice. “You’ve earned the right to sit down and be waited upon this morning.” “Yes, Ellie,” Ash joined in. “Please sit down and rest.” Hesitantly, she sat down in the seat that Paul had presented. She wasn’t sure how she liked being waited on. “Don’t worry, love,” Gray said, placing a plateful of food in front of her. “You can help me with Cinnamon after we eat. Will that make you feel more useful?” The word love made a long shiver travel down Ellie’s spine. “I suppose so,” Ellie responded. The four men all dug in, and quiet filled the room for several minutes. Ellie picked up her fork slowly, casting her eyes around the table in order to watch the men. “Aren’t you hungry?” Ash asked. “You’ve hardly touched your food. Is something wrong?” “Oh, no,” Ellie said, laughing. “I’m just thinking about you guys, actually. And me. This is the second time I’ve stayed the night here,

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you know. And I guess I’m just getting sort of fond of it. It’s nice staying here with you—kind of like being with a big family or something.” Brett folded up his newspaper and looked at her steadily for a moment. “How would you feel if it was like this all the time?” He asked, finally. “Wha—What do you mean?” “We could share you. All four of us Mackey brothers and Gray,” he said. Ellie caught him shooting what appeared to be a meaningful look at Gray as he said it. Ellie gulped. She had anticipated some sort of trouble between the five men, but this was definitely an unexpected development. “What would sharing mean?” she asked. “Just this, working together, as a family,” Gray said, leaning in and nodding at Brett. “And of course, some other, uh, benefits.” She looked around the table. She would have been surprised to admit it out loud, but the Mackeys and their houseguest had definitely endeared themselves to her in a very short time. “I need a little while to think it over,” she said, ultimately. “Of course, of course,” said Ash. “Take all the time you need,” Paul added. “What should we do today?” Gray asked. Brett folded up his newspaper and looked at them steadily. “I think perhaps we should go for a horse ride.” Ash and Gray placed the rest of the plates down on the table and sat down in their seats. Ellie gulped. Horse ride? There was no way! “Brett,” she said. “I’ve never ridden a horse before.” “I know,” he said, grinning mischievously at her. “Paul told me. I aim to change that.” “I can’t do it, though, Brett,” she said mournfully. “I’m afraid I’ll fall off or something.” She said it as though she meant it, although internally, she was intrigued.

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“Don’t worry,” Paul said. “We’ll give you Merry to ride. She’s our gentlest horse.” “It’s okay, Ellie, we’re not going to let anything happen to you,” Gray added. She looked at each one of their faces. They all looked at her with eagerly. They were all so sweet. Brett leaned over to her and placed his hand gently on her knee. “Maybe it’s time you faced your fears,” he said, brushing a few strands of hair away from her cheek. A prick of the old anger surfaced, but then she looked deeply into his eyes. He seemed so genuinely concerned for her welfare. She sighed. “I guess so,” she said resignedly. “I do like horses—I practically couldn’t survive without Tangerine. She’s my favorite horse at the rodeo barn. But you have to promise not to laugh at me or leave me behind.” Gray put his hand over hers. “We will never do that to you, Ellie. Ever.” “That’s right,” Ash agreed.

* * * *

After they had checked back in on Cinnamon, who seemed to be recuperating nicely, Brett got their tack and gear ready while Ellie watched. The saddles and reins were amicable enough, but the thought of hoisting herself up on one of those bodies, one of those skittish bodies that could be unraveled by the tiniest distraction, scared her. That’s all it had taken for her mother, after all, a few wrong steps, a snake, and her mother was on her back. A few days later and she was gone. And her aunt had made her feel as though riding was something to be afraid of. Ellie shivered. She hadn’t thought about her mother’s death in years—the light coming in to the hospital room, her thin face and closed eyes. Every day after school, she would come and read her

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mother a book. It was actually the closest she had ever been to her. And everyone had said it would be just a little while, in a little while, her mother would be better. But then the turn for the worst had come… She hadn’t realized it, but tears had sprung into her eyes. She looked over at Gray, who was watching her with a sweetly concerned expression. He placed his hand on the small of her back, and whispered in her ear, “Ellie, why are you afraid of horses?” She was surprised that he could have forgotten, but remembered that Gray hadn’t grown up in their town. “My mother. She died from a fall. After that, my aunt kept me off of them. I’ve wanted to get on one for a long time, but I’ve been scared.” He reached over and grabbed her hand. The strong force of it sent shocks down her spine. “What happened?” “She hurt her spine and died several weeks later. My father went a few months after her. I think he just couldn’t bear to be without her anymore.” “That’s why you’ve had to work so hard. You’ve been trying to keep the ranch afloat for all these years, and you’ve been keeping your heart under wraps.” The tears flowed heavily now. “How did you know?” was all she could muster. “I lost my mother too, when I was about fifteen. You never get over it.” “Sometimes it still hurts. I miss her so much. I miss…this sounds selfish…but I miss having someone who cares about me, about my interests.” Someone placed a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up. It was Brett. “Ellie, you’re not going to have to worry about that anymore.” “Oh Brett.” She buried her head in his chest and just cried like that for a few moments, Brett holding her, Gray’s hand on the small of her back.

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“Shhh,” Brett said, and he leaned in and kissed the tears off her cheeks. Gray pulled his hands through his hair. “Let it out,” he said. She looked up at them both, their eyes shining with concern, and slowly and sensually, she stretched her neck upward and kissed them, first Brett’s large, concerned mouth, and then Gray’s, which curled slightly upward in the corners as if he were forever remembering a good joke. Brett’s lips fell to her hands, and he began kissing slowly down to the joint of each finger. “These are the hands of a woman of heart and mind,” he said. As he kissed, Gray was free to attend to her mouth. He slid his tongue like a seductive snake across the outline of her bottom lip and took a playful nibble. Just then, they heard the barn door open, and Paul and Ash approached. Brett gave her a little swat on her bottom. “We’ll continue this later,” he said.

* * * *

All of north Texas, it seemed, lay completely covered in white glittery pureness that afternoon. The sun made dithering attempts to poke through holes in the clouds, casting short gleams on the white stuff, as intense as the sunlight in any desert. The trees were enclosed in a thick, glassy coating. Ellie was surprised at the kinds of things she noticed from the back of a horse. It was a new vantage point. Sure, it had been scary at first, but Merry was indeed a gentle horse, and soon Ellie felt right at home with her. Besides, Ash and Brett had helped her up, taking care to notice any part of her jeans that might be catching on the silver-rimmed saddle, gently repositioning her legs so that she could sit comfortably. And Ash had held her hand until she didn’t feel frightened to sit up on the horse by herself any longer. Afterward, she had bent down and given him a deep open-

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mouthed kiss from the back of the horse, with her hair falling down around them. The country always had a fierce beauty to it, but to Ellie, it appeared as though some of its savagery had faded. There was something kind about the billowing clouds, trapped in their impenetrable slabs of gray, something cheerful and smiling about the muddy crescents the horses left in the snow. Sitting on the horse’s back was deep and rhythmically meditative, it turned out, and it was calming to feel Merry’s stout feet moving steadily over the ground as her back swayed slightly at the hips from the movement. Even greater was the whip of joy that nipped through her heart as she thought of them riding, Ash and Gray in front of her, Paul at her side on his gray horse Daisy-chain, and Ash a meditative distance away in the rear. It felt so…right was the only word to describe it. In the back of her mind was their proposal, and Brett’s intriguing conversation from before. Could she really be with them all? And what did he mean about rules? She couldn’t deny that the thought of it made her cunt tingle with excitement just a tiny bit. And the men had proved themselves. They had protected her when she had needed rescuing in the bar, but they had trusted her to lead when Cinnamon was in trouble and needed help. They chatted a little back and forth about the weather, Gray dropping a colorful anecdote about his days on the circuit here and there. Mostly they rode just in silence, enjoying the day. Suddenly, Merry’s ears perked up. Brett stopped his horse, the rest of them falling in line behind them. A slow thunder started on the edge of the horizon, gathering in intensity, growing louder and louder. “What is that?” Ellie shouted above the noise. “A herd of wild horses. Hold on tight, and get ready to ride, Ellie,” Brett shouted back. Ellie’s pulse began to race. Get ready to ride?

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Then the horses were there, rushing over a little ridge ahead of them. Merry began pacing, snorting, and they were rushing forward. Ellie was startled and dropped the reigns, then pulled hard on Merry’s mane, the force of the stampede making her sit higher on the horse’s back to grab around its neck. They were flying through the canyons now, the cold wind throwing Ellie’s hair behind her. She could hardly breathe, but she felt oddly exhilarated as the horses continued on in their run, wild and free, traveling across the fenceless wilderness to nowhere in particular. Eventually the herd dissipated, and the horses scattered around a small creek through which a few fingers of water wheedled lazily over ice-cratered banks. Ellie coughed a few times from the cold and found that her hands were shaking from the ride. They weren’t shaking from fear, but from excitement. Somehow she had known that she would be okay, even through the crazy dash through the brush. She felt sure now, after the events of the night before, that neither Brett, Gray, Ash, nor Paul would lead her into anything they thought she wouldn’t be able to manage. They all got off their mounts and let the horses rest a bit. Paul wrapped his arms around Ellie, and she was surprised by the strength in his shoulders as he did. Paul always seemed so sweet and innocent that Ellie had never thought of him as capable of possessing the deeply muscled biceps that she now saw he had. They stood like that for a while, in silence, watching the light grow long, watching the horses snort and graze the stumpy withered grass that lay under the thin layer of snow. They kept their movements soft and gentle so as not to spook the wild horses. It was the most relaxed Ellie had felt for many, many years. She knew in that moment that this was what she was put on the Earth to do—to be an instrument of love for all the creatures on the Earth. Now she finally felt the forces of love acting back upon her in the form of these four fine men. She was truly blessed. Now, if only it could last some time before the whole thing fell apart!

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Brett wandered over to her. She noted how his walk was always slightly stiff, as though he had a grudge against gravity for its slim control over his body. Still, the intense bulk of him, the rigorous coil of his muscles, made her heart skip a beat and a short note of excitement chime deep within the center of her belly and dissipate slowly in her already moist cunt. “Well, Ellie,” he said as he sidled up beside her, “have you had some time to think about our agreement?” She should have known that he would return to this! Her body was betraying her, though. She felt the arousal begin to surge deep within her pussy. “Yes, I have…” “So, any thoughts?” His voice was deep and husky with obvious lust. “Yes, Ellie, what do you think?” Paul chimed in. “I…I don’t know,” she stammered. “I’m…afraid.” “Don’t be afraid, Ellie!” Paul said. “My brother’s right. Just like the horse ride today, you have nothing to fear from us. We only want to be near you, to adore you, to pleasure your body and love your soul. You are everything to us, and we would never risk losing you by doing anything you don’t want. “Having said that, however,” he continued, “you and I both know that it is your deepest desire to let go, to be cared for and acted upon. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Some are made that way. You want to release your cares and controls to us, isn’t that right?” “Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the thought of it intrigues me. But I’m worried that you’ll take advantage of me.” Her pussy had its own thoughts, though. It was practically throbbing with the very mention of the idea. “All right Ellie. I like rules, which I’ll tell you more about later. But I’ll make one rule for myself. If we ever treat you unkindly, or don’t respect your wishes, or fail to stop when you say so, the tables will turn, and you may do with us whatever you desire. You will

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become our dominator, and we will release total control to you. That way, we all share an equal risk in the arrangement.”

A deep, uncontrollable grin settled on Ellie’s face. The thought of

Brett’s massive body being utterly under her power was equal parts intriguing and amusing. She laughed audibly, feeling the tension of the situation melting off of her. “But don’t think about lying to us just to relinquish control. I told you that there would be consequences for misbehavior, and I meant it.”

A deep erotic shiver traveled down her spine to the end of her ass

at his words. She could see his cock straining the seams of his tight jeans, even in the cold weather. At the same time, a small knot lodged in her stomach at the take-charge tone in his voice, but underneath the knot was a twinge of curiosity and—could it be?—excitement at the prospect of seeing if Brett would follow through with his threats. She laid an idle hand on the fly of his jeans and felt Paul’s cock tense behind her as he watched. She could almost hear his jaw dropping. “Only time will tell, won’t it?” she said, with a satisfied grin. Then, with a whiplash turn, she strode back to where the horses were grazing. “Boys,” she called back over her shoulder in a sing-song voice, “I think I’m ready to go. I’d like to go take a shower in your bathroom.” She mounted Merry without looking back to see their reaction. But she had a good feeling that they knew what was coming next.

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Chapter 7

The hot steam of the shower felt intensely good after a long day of riding in the cold. Ellie stood there, just watching it envelop the room and her naked body. There was a timid knock on the door. It was Brett. She knew what was on his mind, and she felt butterflies flutter up in her stomach. She wasn’t exactly sure how this would work, but she felt intensely aroused at the thought of having four gorgeous, dominating men at her disposal. Her swollen pussy ached at the prospect, in fact. “Well, hello,” she said, trying to force a husky, lust-weighted voice. She heard none of the feminine swagger that had possessed her earlier, however. There was a tiny catch in her voice. As soon as the door had opened, Brett drew her to him. It felt good to be back in his strong arms. She smelled his musk, not an unpleasant odor, just masculine—sharp and earthy. “Well, Brett. Tell me, now are you going to treat me to the full breadth of your plan? I think I’m ready to learn a little bit about what doing it your way means.” She couldn’t even believe the words as they came out of her mouth. She just knew that they felt right somehow. Brett cracked a small, sly grin. “Well, first of all, you will not come without my permission. I am the one pleasuring you, so I get to say when you come. Second of all, if you do happen to come without my permission, there will be consequences, a punishment that I will dictate.” Ellie’s heart leapt into her throat. Punishment?

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“Thirdly,” Brett continued, “you will wear whatever I ask, and I will take you in any position I like.” Ellie gulped. This was starting to sound like the military. “For agreeing to meet me under all these conditions,” Brett continued in his domineering, business-like voice, “you will have my total love and compassion. I will promise to look out for your interests and never hurt you, physically or emotionally. I will never ask for any sexual actions that I know wouldn’t be best for you” She sat for a moment, stunned. The thought of Brett controlling her every move was surprisingly hot, and she knew she could trust him not to go too far. Slowly, she nodded. “So you agree?” he asked. She nodded again. It was as though her voice had left her. “Well, we’ll need a safe word. How about ‘saddle,’” he said, grinning. She nodded a final time. “Saddle,” she said, her power of speech finally returning. He moved toward her then. Slowly he ran his fingers through her hair, pulling it away from her face and drawing her head back in order to thrust upon her a deep kiss. His kiss was forceful, as though he were saying, “I am in charge here.” He drew his mouth close to her ears. “I think a few modifications in behavior are in call. Luckily, I know just the trick,” and with that, he laid a small swat on her left buttock. Ellie gulped. She was surprised by the deep arousal it awoke within her cunt, but also by the formidable sting that accompanied his open-handed spanking. There was another knock. The door opened, and there stood Gray, naked from the waist up. Brett released her and began unbuttoning his shirt. The sight of the combined broadness of their perfectly muscled chests was almost too much. Ellie had to suppress a gasp.

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Gray walked over to Ellie with his hands behind his back and laid an intense kiss on her. When he brushed against her, she could feel the rising bulk of his hard cock banking against his jeans. She tried to pull his arms around her, but Gray resisted, keeping his hands cupped behind his back. “What are you hiding there?” she asked, reaching behind him to try and grab the object from his grip.

He pulled it out of her reach just as she went for it though, his hand still obscuring it. His good-natured handsome features deepened into

a squinty-eyed grin, and then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he showed

her what he had been hiding. It was a plug. She was a little taken aback. She hadn’t thought that her “behavior modification” would include such extreme measures, but she tried to

remember that she trusted these men. She had, after all, agreed to give herself over to them, and she wasn’t one to turn back on her word once she had made up her mind. Gray had worked his arms around her, and now he was tugging gently on her ear with his teeth, running his hands slowly up the plump curve of her ass, sending wicked chills through her legs and moistening her pussy. As he attended to her ear, he explained, “If we’re going to share you, you’re going to have to learn to take more of us in at once. This

is just a little training, if you will. It will be a little bit uncomfortable

at first, but it’s the only way. We want to be able to share you, and share you we will.”

He pulled slightly away and gazed deeply into her eyes. Brett was watching them intently with a look of loving concern. The thought that she was somehow performing for him filled her with a great lustful need, and the idea of them both being so concerned made her feel more at ease and trustful. Her heart filled with love. She sighed deeply, trying to exhale all her jitters. “Close your eyes,” Brett said. Obeying, she let herself be led by Brett by her hands down the short hallway and pushed gently down

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onto the bed so that she was kneeling there, hands pressed together in her lap. “Darlin’,” Brett said, a twinge of a laugh evident in his voice, “if we’re going to do this, you’re going to have to show off the goods.” He grabbed her around the waist and turned her so that she was splayed on the bed, her ass neatly presented to him. That was one hell of a grip! “Now,” Brett said, adopting a slight authoritative air, “this won’t hurt.” She shivered a little in anticipation. And then suddenly, her jaw dropped. She felt the first lubed fingers work their way gently into her hole after first making a rough drag across her engorged clit. The shock of it was surprising, to say the least, but she was also surprised at how deeply erotic it felt. She was almost frantic from all the lusty thoughts that were crowding in her head, and the deep need she felt reverberated in her pussy. Gray came over with the plug, and she felt him working it into her, deeply filling her. The object encompassed her insides, and she felt so…full. She was shaking. Gently, Gray rolled her over to her back and began kissing her greedily. Brett spread her legs, holding her knees with a tight grip, and swooped in with his mouth, working down to her inner thighs, slowly tonguing and nipping the small bits of extra flesh there. She felt his tongue work its way into her already well-lubricated cunt. “Keep those eyes closed, Missy!” Brett commanded from below her. Her right hand brushed up against a cock so large and engorged that she could hardly believe it was real. And then in her left hand, she felt another huge cock practically pulsating as it brushed against her palm. Sneaking a peak, she looked over and saw that she had Paul in one hand and Ash in the other. A glistening drip of pre-cum sat above the head of each cock, threatening to fall.

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Brett began swiveling his tongue inside her, reaching her in the most intimate spaces. The fullness from the plug, the swollenness of the cocks in her hands, and Gray’s deep kisses in her mouth were all building her up to a tidal wave of release. She twisted around and began deep-throating Paul’s massive cock before he threatened to spill. All the nervousness left her as she felt herself reveling in her new powers and sensed herself swirling upwards towards her orgasm. Pulling away from Paul, she gasped with the release of her orgasm, grabbing a tuft of Gray’s hair and screaming out loud. He turned her, and she was being pulled onto Gray. She rode him hard while Paul knelt on the floor and shoved his hard cock deep into her throat, and she sucked deeply, trying to keep pace with Gray’s hard thrusts from underneath her. After Paul muttered a deep groan of satisfaction, Ash quickly took his place, moving over her in quick expert motions. She tongued him deeply, and found that she was, at last, enjoying this. Gray and Ash finished at almost the exact same time, crashing over her in deep satisfaction. She was not through yet, however. Her pussy ached for more. Quickly, as though they were in syncopated motion, Gray, Paul, and Ash were all off her. Turning over, she looked up to find Brett kneeling on the bed before her, the imposing bulk of his abs descending into his remarkably huge cock. She had forgotten just how great it was. In one swift motion, he pinned her down by her shoulders, and the weight hitting the mattress made her spring up slightly. He growled deeply, his need evident in every taut tendon of his heavy body. Gasping, she kissed his neck hungrily, aching to be filled. Slowly, he worked the condom on, as she admired the huge wealth of his endowment. He smiled. He was obviously enjoying torturing her. He slipped a finger into the entrance of her pussy, doing it in confidently, as though she was his to claim. She shuddered. She was his now.

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He slipped into her, teasing her by moving in short, concentric motions. She felt more full than she ever had before, feeling the plug that was still there on the other side. He ratcheted up the energy, and he was on her, kissing, nipping the flesh on her neck, her nipples, her throat, growling out deep moans. The head of his cock slammed into the deepest parts of her. It felt as though she were being touched in places she had never even known existed within her, as though he were reaching her most intimate place. The walls of her pussy shuddered. He was hitting her in just the right spot. It was so intense that she could barely stand it. She bit hard into his neck, muffling her screams as the greatest orgasm she had ever had rolled over her like a thunderclap of pleasure. Exhausted, they collapsed next to each other. She was tired, but also she felt spent in a very real way. It had been a very emotional day. She rolled over onto her side and looked deeply into Brett’s eyes, and read the contentment there. In a few seconds, she was asleep.

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Chapter 8

Derby hitched himself up on the bar stool of the Double Four. He was wearing dark glasses and a huge cowboy hat—his effort to hide in case any press had followed him here. A pretty redhead was behind the bar. She looked vaguely familiar to him, but he couldn’t place her. He wasn’t surprised though. A lot of things were looking vaguely familiar these days. She was presently occupied in swiping a dripping rag across the counter, a dreamy look on her face. “Excuse me,” he said, adopting his confident, poised, board- meeting tone, even though lately that tone had been harder and harder to call upon. The look disappeared from her face. She came over to him slowly, as though she was hesitant to disturb the remnants of her reverie. “Yes,” she said, brushing a stray hair from her face. She’s cute, he thought, not my type, but cute. A shock of recognition hit him. This was the O’Shea girl. She’d been in middle school when he’d left, and now, here she was, all grown up. Didn’t she have a sister, too? he wondered idly. “Ahem? You wanted something?” He realized she had been standing there for several seconds while his revelation rolled over him. “Oh, I, uh…excuse me…I was hoping I could order a drink.” The shock of recognition had almost left him speechless, but somehow the words managed to stumble out of his mouth. “People generally do that in bars,” she said, shooting him a great big, graphic wink. “What’s your poison?”

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“Glenlivet?” “Is that your name or something, mister? I just want your drink order.” Derby realized he had made a mistake. No one in this town drank scotch. It was whiskey or beer. “Oh, I’ll just take, uh, a shot of Jack. Straight up.” “Finally,” she said. She tried to say it under her breath, but due to his many years straining to hear grainy cell phone calls in exotic locales, he heard her. He glanced down, exhaling slowly. He’d only been in town for a few hours, and already he had managed to insult the locals. As he turned his eyes heavenward, he caught a glimpse of a piece of paper taped to the front of the bar. Wanna party? it said, in big block letters. He read further. The flyer was an advertisement for a costume party the bar was hosting that night. “Excuse me,” he said to the bartender again, who had gone back to her rag and was now rubbing at the same spot on the counter while the rest of her danced to the country music playing softly overhead. “Ready for another one already?” she asked. “Uh, not quite. I was wondering what you could tell me about this party,” he said, pointing up to the flyer. “Oh my goodness,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “It’s just the best thing ever. Everyone who’s interesting turns out. This town can be so dull sometimes, but I’ll tell you what, that is one night when it isn’t.” “Well, what makes it so interesting?” He hadn’t been to a party in ages that didn’t include champagne, hors d'oeuvres, and stuffy conversation, but the parties in high school had been legendary. Plenty of beer, fun-loving women, and good friends. He didn’t want to betray himself to this bartender, however. Maybe he could pump her, surreptitiously, for knowledge about his brothers. Then he could decide how best to approach Brett.

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The O’Shea sister gave a toss of her long red hair. “It’s just that it’s a costume party. But not like your typical, boring costume party. It’s a sex change party!” His jaw almost dropped open, but somehow, he managed to keep his composure. “What, pray tell, is a sex change party?” “All the men dress up like women, and all the women dress up like men. It’s hilarious. And people around here take their costumes seriously. Last year we had a Marilyn, a Christina Aguilera, a Batman, a Prince. It’s the best.” Suddenly, a flash of inspiration hit him. This was the perfect place to meet up with his brothers. There was no way they would miss this party. And the costume would give him the chance to disguise himself and apologize without any chance of being seen or overheard by any prying forces. “So,” he said, leaning in toward the bartender, “is there a costume shop around here anywhere?” “Oh yeah,” she said, and he could tell she was surprised at how game he was. “The Golden Earring.” “What time do they close?” he asked, glancing at his watch. It was almost six. “Oh, I imagine they’ll be open until late tonight, maybe nine or ten.” He paid her quickly for the drinks and then made his way quickly out the door. Just when he got to the exit, however, he turned back around. “I forgot to ask where this costume shop is,” he said to the O’Shea girl. “It’s on Baker Street.” He didn’t even have to ask her for directions.

* * * *

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Ellie woke up after the nap to find the bed deserted. She felt refreshed and more relaxed than she had in ages. Where had Paul, Brett, Gray, and Ash got off to, though? She stretched luxuriously for a moment, and then got up to find them. She noticed how soft and pleasant it felt to walk. Her body felt light. Every muscle seemed to have been stretched and refreshed to the brink of total relaxation. “Guys?” she called as she rounded the hall. “Guys?” She felt something soft and silky touch her toe. Rose petals! They cascaded down the plush carpeting of the stairs. She followed them and ended up in the massive dining room. She had never been in this room before. The floor was a golden oak, and ornate massive chairs and a long, but not intimidating, table dominated the room. Long windows looked out on the last glimpses of twilight seeping over the hills. Over the table was spread a fancy linen tablecloth, and candles burned in ornate gilded holders. Ash, Gray, Brett, and Paul were nowhere to found, however. “Guys?” she called again, but no answer. Had they left her? And why weren’t they watching the candles? She walked tensely down the hallway to the kitchen. She heard a noise. Something that sounded like broad, masculine laughter. “Gray? Ash? Paul? Brett?” The laughing grew louder. It was coming from the kitchen. Were they laughing at her? She walked there quickly, now. Her body was like a lightning rod for those men. She approached the kitchen and saw a flurry of pink floaty material pass by in the corner of her eye. What was going on? Brett caught her eye first. “Hello, there, Ellie, darlin’,” he said, in his best Blanche Dubois impersonation of a southern gentlewoman. He began convulsing into giggles. Ellie looked in, and she could see four of the manliest men she had ever known, men who had just made

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her feel womanly and beautiful with their dominance, dressed in the frilliest dresses she had ever seen! “Wha—What’s going on here?” she asked, confused. “Oh, Ellie, darlin’,” Paul said, mimicking his brother’s southern drawl. “We thought you might like a classy supper from four of the loveliest ladies in town!” As he said this, he flung the feather boa he was wearing across his body and did his best impersonation of a sashay away. “Hello there, Ellie,” Gray said, giggling, throwing aside a fluffy ball gown that was hanging over the counter. He had on a pink flapper hat with feathers, and when he laughed, the hat tilted dangerously askew over one eye. “Hey, Gray. Seems like you’ve got your hands full here.” “No, not full yet,” he said, winking and drawing her close to him. Above the mass of sparkles, sequins, and lace that decorated the kitchen table, he kissed her deeply. “So, uh, pretty lady,” she said, winking back, “can you tell me what exactly I’ve stumbled into here? Is this your usual Friday night ritual?” “Have you forgotten, Ellie?” Paul piped up. “Tonight’s the costume party at the Double Four.” Her jaw almost dropped to the table. The costume party! She’d completely forgotten. Even though she felt nervous drawing attention to herself usually, she’d still never missed one of these parties. They were practically the highlight of living in Sage. Well, the highlight before I realized I love these silly men, Ellie thought. “Aren’t you going to dress up?” Brett asked. “I remember last year. You were a pretty hot man. Damn. If I was a lady…” “Shut up!” she said, swiping him on the butt with a plastic tiara from the table. “I dunno. What am I going to wear?” She felt shy after letting herself be dominated by the men, and her butt still ached from the plug Gray had wedged there—a pleasant, sexy ache, but still, a

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constant reminder of how she had let down her guard. And she wasn’t sure if she wanted to act manly or funny around them anymore. “Uh, hello,” Brett said, calling her bluff. “There are three men who live here. We have about a million options for you.” “Well…” “Well what?” Ash said as he exited the bathroom in full drag. He was dressed in the tiniest little mini skirt, with platform heels about half a foot high, and a tiny little nurse’s hat planted on top of a platinum-blonde wig. Ellie almost fell over. This was the man who, not four hours ago, had revealed one of the heftiest, thickest cocks she’d ever seen. Now he was struggling to hide his girth under a little wisp of cloth. Timidly, she took out a long pink wig and made as though she wanted to place it on Brett’s head. She was nervous, though. He had said that she needed to “behave,” and she could imagine he intended to enforce it. Although a shiver ran through her, thinking about how she wouldn’t mind being under the control of his thick, powerful arms. As she thought about this last piece, she wanted it all over again. She wanted all of them piled on the bed, and she wanted to be at the very bottom of the pile, covered and completely protected by their enormous muscled bodies. She was not even in the mood to joke. She wanted Brett to praise and stroke her. “Brett?” she said, shy from the realization of just how deeply she needed them. He shot her a knowing look. “What is it, my pretty pet?” “Well, um, how would you like to wear this one?” she asked, handing him a feather headpiece. But the words came out stilted. What was happening to her? His very touch had broken down her barriers, making her vulnerable and stumbling. “Looks like just the thing,” he said.

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He paused for a moment, then picked up a pair of the frilliest panties Ellie had ever seen. They were embarrassingly girly. “Here,” he said, handing them to her. “You get dressed up in your costume.” “But, Brett, I’m supposed to be dressed as a man at this party,” she told him. “On the outside you’ll be dressed as a man, but on the inside, you’ll be all woman. I don’t want you to forget it. So you’d best put these on,” he said, taking on a stern tone. She bit her lip and shook her head. She’d die if she wore those! So embarrassing! “No way!” she cried. “I’m not doing that!” “Careful, Ellie. You’re getting spoiled already.” “I’m not spoiled. You’re—you’re—indefensible!” He shot her such a look that she was sorry she had said it. Although he did kind of deserve it. “Oh Ellie. I love it when you’re all riled. If I could, I would put you on that bed and go to town. But for now, we have to get going.” “All right, suit yourself. Just remember, I’ve told you what I want you to do.” Everyone seemed to have somewhere else to look. With a deep sigh, and a slight huff, she took the panties off the table and went to scour their closets for a costume.

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Chapter 9

Derby took a deep breath. As he did, he looked down at himself and caught a glimpse of what he was wearing. He had almost forgotten—he now stood, ready to make his first entrance into town life in almost twenty years and he was wearing a frilly pink tutu with little lace rivulets at each pleat, a skin tight leotard, lace-up ballet shoes, a tiny pink tiara that sat, slightly askew, giving him a cockeyed look. His heart was beating about a mile per minute. He pushed open the door to the club. Whew! At least he hadn’t read the flyer wrong. The bar was packed, filled with some of the ugliest, most ungraceful women he had ever seen. He went over to the bar. If he was going to hang around here, he needed a few drinks navigating his bloodstream. He stepped up to the bar and was greeted by a willowy man. The costume was so convincing that it took him a few minutes to realize he was being served by the red-haired beauty from before. “How’s it going?” he asked, throwing his voice to a feminine pitch. Instantly she picked up on the game. “All right, I guess,” she said in a husky growl. In an exaggerated motion, she adjusted herself. It wasn’t ladylike, but it was hilarious. She had gotten right into the part. “What can I get for you, little lady?” she asked. “Hmm.” Derby thought for a minute. “How about a Sex on the Beach?” He’d always wanted to order one of those, but thought it was too girly.

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Mellie nodded curtly. In a minute, she came back with the drink, a bright orange concoction with two cherries surfing the end of a little pink umbrella. Embarrassed, Derby accepted the drink in its high martini glass. Instinctively, he patted his hips for his wallet several times before he realized he had forgotten to bring it! Mellie tapped her fingers on the bar table impatiently. A few more minutes passed with Derby checking the silky front of his outfit several times. He looked around impulsively, not knowing what to do. If he was in his usual garb, under usual circumstances, if he was in his element in the city and still a bestselling author, he would have easily been able to finesse his way out of this situation. He would have charmed the bartender and had her buying him drinks by the end of the night. Or he would have known someone in the bar, and it would have turned out that they would have just won an award and were in a celebratory mood, and they would pay his tab for him. He searched the bar for an answer, looking for something that would save him from having to admit he didn’t have the cash to pay for a simple drink. There had to be answer somewhere out there.

* * * *

Ellie took a deep breath as she approached the door of the Double Four. She couldn’t believe that she was about to walk in to the bar dressed the way she was. Still, she had to admit, for all the make- believe, she still looked pretty hot. She was dressed head-to-toe in black leather—leather riding pants, black leather jacket with lots of metal studs, and, to top it all off, a black cowboy hat to hide her blonde tresses. Underneath it all, of course, was the pair of flirty panties that Brett had commanded her to wear. She felt a mixture of embarrassment and eroticism as she recalled them. Making matters worse were the four gaudy cowboys on all sides of her. Ellie laughed softly to herself—the men had certainly outdone

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themselves this year. Paul had picked a fun sporty red top with little rainbows and shooting stars decorating it. He was also wearing a tiara, but it was slightly askew on its perch above his bright pink wig. Ash had finally settled on something more demure than his mini-skirted nurse’s outfit from before—ultimately, he had chosen a sort of soft, shimmery southern belle getup, with blonde hair piled high on his head in coquettish curls. He looked utterly ridiculous, though, since he was tripping all over his high heels. Brett was decked out to the nines—a tight mini dress with a gaping hole around the midriff—he was also wearing heaving fake breasts. He had a drag queen’s sensibility for tight, pulled-back hairdos with a fancy headdress of bright green feathers crowning it. He practically stomped a stiletto- shaped hole into the ground as he strode—his confident manly stride tamed by the tiny, tottery shoes. However, Gray had to be the most over-the-top of them all. He had gone full skank, a teeny tiny black mini skirt, a lacy top that was more like a bra, high blonde curls, and bright red lipstick. But the icing on the cake had to be his footgear. He was wearing six-inch high heels—clear heels. Gazing at them, she grew more confident about her own getup. At least she wasn’t going to be the most ridiculous one at the party. She reached behind her and put her arms around both Paul’s and Ash’s waists. “Hey, purdy ladies,” she said, in a deep Southern drawl. “Would y’all fine young things do me the favor of letting me escort you to this here shindig?” Ash giggled coquettishly and covered his mouth delicately with his hand. “Oh you,” he said. Together, they pushed open the door and headed in. The scene inside the bar was wild. Already a plethora of fake strip teases had erupted on the dance floor, owing to the fact that “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” was blaring over the speakers. In a surprising move of flexibility, one of the rowdies from the rodeo a few nights ago was bending over backwards, thrusting heavily towards the

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ceiling. He was wearing a purple tutu that kept floating upwards with every thrust. To his right was a man dressed as Helga the Horrible, complete with long blonde braids, Viking cap, and conical bra. A woman with a giant beer gut stuffed into her shirt kept bending over to spank the air in front of her. And another “woman” dressed like Joan Jett was working on a shredding air guitar solo. “This place is crazy!” Brett called over the hubbub. “I need a drink to tolerate this!” “Let me get it then—after all, I am the man,” Ellie said, shooting them a mischievous grin. Brett was nothing if not a good sport. A wry grin came over him, and he winked back. “You’re not trying to take advantage of me, are you, Ellie?” “Not any more than you’ve already taken advantage of me—all of me,” she said back, feeling a small note of arousal reverberate in her cunt. “Ladies,” she said, securing a small table by the window. “I shall return with libations.” “I thought she was southern, now she’s Elizabethan,” Gray said. “Being a man has really changed you, Ellie.” “Don’t worry,” she said, winking. “I’ve still got all the right parts.” “Really right,” Gray murmured, running his arm up the length of her slim wrist. “Hurry back.” Brett cleared his throat. “Just a minute, Ellie,” he said, in a commanding tone. She felt her heart drop. He might be dressed as a woman, but he was still every bit the strong, dominating man from before. “I want to show you something,” he continued. “In the back.” He grabbed her arm and led her in a beeline toward the room behind the bar. Ellie marveled at how his imposing body almost instantaneously cleared a path through the crowded room. He pulled her along, and she could feel the desire evident in his hurried motions.

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Before she knew it, they were in the storage room of the bar. In the corner was a big mechanical bull that had been pushed into storage to make room for the party. Brett pushed her up against the plank wall next to the bull. “Let’s see,” he said. “Did you do as I asked?” With quick, expert hands, he unzipped the fly of her leather pants and pushed a hand into the front of them, slipping a few fingers into her now aching pussy and examining the inner crevices of her cunt. Pulling back out, he worked her top and pants off until she was standing there, in nothing but the embarrassing underwear. “Goooood girl,” he said, breathing into her neck, kissing her hungrily there. “Still, just a few for good measure.” He straightened up.

In one motion, he lifted her up and laid her across the back of the mechanical bull, pulling the panties down roughly around her knees. With a large, open hand, he spanked her hard, once, twice, three times. “Just to remind you what you agreed to, and who the boss is around here,” he said. She knew that he was doing it because she wanted it. The experience was deeply erotic, even if it was being administered by a man in drag. Still, she could not believe how quickly he had seemed to shift into the dominating man she so deeply craved. Then, he softened. A tender look came over his face, and he tugged the panties off, and lifted her gently so that she was sitting on the very back of the bull. He reached over and she heard the click of a switch. The bull began to rock back and forth, very gently, as though it was made purposefully to imitate the rhythms of coitus. He pulled up the skirt up, and she could see that his enormous cock was at full attention, glistening with one tiny drop of pre-cum. In one quick movement, he was on the bull before her. He produced a condom from his pocket, undid the wrapper, put it on, and pulled her up to meet him.

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She gasped as the extensive length of his cock filled her up. She felt it, once again, touching her very center. The bull rocked, pushing them first into then away from each other, the motion causing his cock to greet her inner places in combinations of movement that made her greedy pussy ache for more. She reached over hungrily, pulling him towards her forcefully, surprised by her own take-charge attitude. She felt herself coming closer and closer to orgasm, and she leaned back to feel the force of Brett’s thrusts, now automatic, as though he was near himself. In one screaming motion, they both came, the intense release running through every tingling part of her body. Brett collapsed against the neck of the mechanical bull and switched it off. Ellie fell against his neck, and as she did, she looked over and saw that there were two figures standing in front of the closed door. It was Paul and Ash! Ellie could not believe it, although she felt a deep shiver run through her at the thought of them watching her. “That was good,” Ash said, “but not nearly as good as we can do.” “Yes,” Paul agreed. “I think you’re ready now.” Ellie could feel herself heating up again, the slow crawl of arousal running through her again. “Ready for what?” she asked in a breathless voice. “Ready for both of us,” Ash said, whipping off his clothes. Paul followed suit. As quick as a flash, Brett exchanged places with Ash, and Paul jumped up behind her. Tenderly, gently, Paul hoisted her up, and reaching under her, withdrew the plug that had prepared her hole. She could not believe how stretched she felt, and she was nervous at the thought of taking Paul’s enormous cock inside of her, although she also knew how good it would feel. As though Paul had read her thoughts, he brushed her hair away and kissed her neck gently. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be gentle.”

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As she leaned into his kisses, she could hear the crinkle of the packages as both of them pulled on condoms. “Wait a second!” she cried suddenly. “What is it, Ellie?” Paul asked. “Where’s Gray? Shouldn’t he be part of this?” “Don’t worry,” Ash replied. “He’s just holding our table. But we’ll let him have a special place later.” It was as though they were anticipating her every need. The rocking of the bull resumed, and then Ash pushed into her. Paul followed, easing slowly into her. She felt as though she could sense every ridge and vein of his thick, meaty cock. She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Finally, he was deep inside her, up to his hilt. She felt so full. He moved slowly in and out, and the shock of his massive cock inside her lessened as she began to enjoy his movements. Ash started in then, slowly plumbing the depths of her cunt. The feeling of the two of them working together, thrusting in time with the bull was almost too much. She could feel Paul’s hot hands on her ass and felt his cock slamming into her as he worked her up and down the long shaft. She came then, fast and hard, screaming as she did. Paul and Ash followed quickly, their spent bodies draping gently over her, their cocks still inside of her. She had never felt so loved. They rested like that for a few moments, catching their breath. “How about we go back to the table now and see what Gray is up to?” Ellie said, still slightly dazed. That’s when she heard the door squeak. “Why come to me when I can come to you?” a voice asked. “And I do mean come.” This last part came out in a quieter tone. Ellie looked up, and she saw Gray drinking her in with his eyes. His cavalier nature seemed to shift, and he said, “Ellie, I swear, I can’t believe how lovely you are. You get more beautiful every time I see you.” He drew a deep breath and then released it.

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“I guess I owe you one, Gray,” Brett said. She shivered, thinking how wonderful it was to be with all of them like this. “Come on, boys,” Brett said, addressing his brothers. “Let’s get out of here.” Brett, Paul, and Ash yanked on their clothes, and in a moment, they were gone, leaving Ellie and Gray alone in the back room. They squared off, facing one another. Across the room, she could see the bulk of his pulsing cock. In a second, he was out of his feminine garb. The light shone across his well-muscled chest. Although she had seen it now twice before, the sight never failed to make her draw her breath. In a matter of seconds, he was on her. Her now well-used pussy was still aching for Gray. It was as though some inner part of her knew that the fivesome had not been completed, and still yearned for the release only this last piece of the puzzle could yield. He kissed her, and she felt his cock straining against her. She wrapped her legs around him, wanting him so badly she wished she could scream. “Ah, ah, ah,” Gray said. “I’ve got you to myself now, and we’re going to make this last. We’re going to take this slow.” She squirmed against him, wanting at once to be obedient and to fill her now aching body. He drew his fingers through her hair slowly, then suddenly drew her head back and kissed her on the neck, deeply, as though he were a thirsty man drinking from a long, cool stream. She was shocked by his forcefulness—Gray was so good-natured that she forgot how strong he truly was. The experience of it made a little thrill run from her heart all the way to her quivering pussy. The experience was so intensely erotic, feeling how strong and in control he was, that she could wait no longer. Urgently, she began pushing against his legs, thrusting, trying to make him enter her and begin. She pulled on his hands, urging him to use them on her. She wanted him so badly.

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Just as she was thinking about this, he exerted his dominance over her once again. In one swift motion, he had her over his knee, in his lap. It was such a surprise that she let out a little gasp. “Now,” he said, enacting a stern tone, “just because Brett isn’t here doesn’t mean you can misbehave and get away with it. I’m in charge now.” She shivered. She had an idea what was coming next, and the thought both terrified and excited her. “I said we were going to take it slow,” he continued, “and right now, what I say goes.” With that, he drew his hand up and delivered a huge smack! to her cheeks, which were still stinging from Brett’s assertion earlier. She felt so, so small there, pinned under him, totally in his control. Ordinarily, the thought would have made her scream, thinking that a man was trying to tell her what to do, to act so thoroughly the boss. But with her men, she had the feeling that it was going to be different. She knew that they weren’t trying to control her just to feel powerful, to boost their own egos. They actually knew she wanted this—knew it before she even had, in fact—and they were only interested in loving her. The thought made her nearly tear up. “Now,” Gray said, delivering another smack to her upturned buttocks, this time less forceful and more playful, although still firm, “are you ready to let me lead?” “I’m sorry,” Ellie panted breathlessly, “I’m sorry.” “Well,” Gray said thoughtfully, “one more for good measure.” He pulled his hand back and laid the biggest open-handed smack onto her that she had ever imagined possible. It crashed down on her with a resounding smack—the sound was so loud that Ellie was pretty sure they could have heard it in the farthest corners of the bar. The feeling was tinged with erotic pleasure at the same time, however, and she knew that she had wanted this discipline deeply. Another shiver worked its way through her pussy, and she had to bite her tongue to keep from gasping aloud. “Ow! I’m sorry!” she said again, and this time she really meant it.

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At this, he gazed at her deeply, and the intensity of his gaze made her heart skip a beat. Within that stare lay both firmness and a vast ocean of love for her. He drew her up gently and kissed her softly on her cheeks, propping one hand under her bottom, which still stung with the most pleasurable pain possible. It was funny how the earnestness of her apology had melted all traces of roughness from his touch—and she realized that in itself was a powerful thing. He stroked her gently, his powerful hands holding her as though she was more precious and rare than the most beautiful porcelain. After spreading his clothes down over the cold ground, he laid her slowly down over them, and she saw that his cock was at attention. His rough hands ran over her breasts, down along her abdomen, gently over her eager pussy and to the apples of her well-worked ass. He slid his tongue expertly along her bottom lip and between her teeth, the suppleness indicating experience that she knew he would be using against her quivering cunt in just a few moments. He toyed with her breasts, a gentle toying that sent little shocks through her. Slowly, he slid his tongue over her body, raking her with it, coursing up her legs, teasing her, coming so close to her hovering entrance, then withdrawing. She squirmed on the clothes, wanting him to take her. “Ellie,” he said, a note of warning in his voice, “you’re not to come until I say so.” She nodded. She was not ready for a repeat of Gray’s discipline— at least not yet. He dove into her, his lapping tongue taunting her, working over the folds of her quaking cunt. Deeply and insistently, he drove into her, pushing into her deep inner crevices, flicking expertly. Bringing her closer and backing off, taunting her, teasing her. She was so close now, but she dared not squirm again. “Gray,” she panted. “Gray, I’m going to come!” He looked up at her. “You’d better not!” he said, his voice stern enough to make even the most rebellious woman obey.

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He slid back into her. His tongue had turned into some sort of sheer pleasure ride. She was no longer aware of anything except her pleasure, and she concentrated hard, trying to fend off her orgasm, trying to do as he said. He stroked her once or twice in just the right spot, however, deeper and richer than she had ever been touched, and she felt a crack in her control. Her power over her own body was breaking up. She could no longer fight it. She lay back and screamed loud and long as her orgasm rolled its way over her. He pounced on her like a tiger. “I told you not to do that!” he practically growled. He flipped her over, and she was surprised at how easily he managed to do it. Her weight was like nothing to him. He shoved into her, and she felt his hands over her sore ass and his massive cock finally entering her. He rode her hard and insistently, taking her like an animal, plunging her inner depths. “Now,” he said, “I’m going to show you who’s boss, once and for all!” He leaned over and kissed her after he said it, just to let her know that they were just playing, that he wasn’t really mad. After a few seconds, she began pushing back, riding him, letting him fill her, letting his cock stroke her inner terrain. She was instantly ready to come again—her fourth orgasm in the past hour. Sensing her closeness, he slowed down. He had wanted to take her slowly, and she saw now that’s just what he was going to do. He lifted her over and over again, gently, controlled, her weight being nothing to him, pulling in and out. She grabbed tightly onto his hands, mentally begging for his permission. She turned her head to look behind him, her eyes pleading with him. He seemed to read her thoughts because he shot her a meaningful look and nodded. She let go. The world became a blur again. She was nothing, pure nothing, nothing but an outlet for pleasure. Her pussy quaked and spasmed hard. He grunted and shoved heavily into her, his movements automatic and intense. Together they came, and the world came falling down all around them as though a tidal wave had passed through the room. He sank over her then as

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they collapsed together back on the floor, his heavy weight a final warm reminder of how fully he had her pinned. They lay there for a while, together, catching their breath. Then slowly, they rose and dressed, Gray planting a few kisses on her naked body as they did. He was no longer the caged tiger, and his good nature returned. Playfully, she punched him on the arm. “Come on,” he said, drawing a hand around her waist, “let’s go see what those knuckleheads are doing now.” “Okay, how about I get us all a drink, and I’ll meet you back there?” She winked at him, the thought of the four sexy men waiting for her already beginning to replete her seemingly bottomless libido. She felt an intense wave of love wash over her, too, and she wanted to care for them all, to give back to them all that they had given her that night. He nodded in agreement. “I’ll see you back there then.” “I can’t wait,” she said, kissing him.

* * * *

Just as Derby was casting his eyes around the bar furiously, he saw her. Sauntering across the barroom, bathed in the escaping red light from the novelty bar lights above, was the girl of his dreams. She was dressed as a man, naturally, given the theme of the evening, but her costume couldn’t hide her womanly curves and the graceful aura that surrounded her. A flicker of recognition went through him, as well, but he couldn’t place it. He needed to get to know this person, to find out if she was why he’d felt he needed to come back. His heart buoyed up below his shimmery garb, and he felt his cock rise up of its own volition. He had to take a giant step back from the bar to keep from nearly falling over. All the rest of the world seemed to fade. This was it. She was why he had come back to Sage, Texas.

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* * * *

Ellie fought her way through the crowd. She had managed to pour herself back into the costume and now only looked slightly disheveled. She was glad she was disguised. Being dominated like that made her feel vulnerable, and she was glad she could hide herself in the men’s clothing. Still, there was something freeing about it also, and she moved through the crowd, a gathering that might have once intimidated her, with ease. She saw her sister and Joe at the bar and waved. She sidled up next to another customer, a thin but well-muscled man wearing a silky getup who looked like he was about to pass out. “Hey, sis. Hey Joe. You okay there, fella?” she said to the man beside her. “Ellie!” Mellie exclaimed. “You look great! Let me get a good look at you.” She stepped out from behind the bar and examined Ellie from head to toe. “Geez,” she said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you make one hot man.” “You certainly are…in quite a getup,” Joe said. “I couldn’t magree ore. I mean, agree more,” said the man beside the bar. He looked like he was hanging onto the bar counter for dear life.

“Excuse me, mister,” Mellie said haughtily, “are you gonna pay me or what?” “You know what, Mellie?” Ellie said. “I’m in a game mood this evening. Let me take care of the little lady’s drink.” She had the urge to be bad, to flirt. She wanted to test Brett’s threat and see if he’d follow through. “Are you sure, Ellie?” Joe asked, a protective note in his voice. Since her parents had died, he often seemed to step into this role. “Yeah.” She reached over and grabbed the stranger’s chin gently in the palm of her hand and examined his face under the light. The features she found there were familiar. Behind his eyes, she registered

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the familiar look of a wanderer—someone who was needing and searching. It was the same need she had felt before Gray and the Mackey brothers had walked into her life. The recognition of this connection spread a warm, peaceful feeling over her. “Somehow, I have the feeling that this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship,” she said, sassily. It wasn’t entirely untrue. “Uh, oh, uh, I couldn’t take your money, ma’am,” the stranger choked out. “You can, and you will. Here, Mellie,” she said, handing her sister a twenty. The stranger cocked his head back and looked at her intently for a second or two. All in one instant, he lurched forward, and pulled her face toward his and kissed her deeply on the mouth. Ellie was stunned. She hadn’t meant for the flirting to go this far. She had only wanted to tease Brett if he had happened to look over. So she pushed him off. But not before she had felt the intensity of his feverish lips pressed against her own shocked ones. She knew, deep in her heart, that a small, glimmering part of her soul had wished that she had kissed back. Her thoughts racing, she took a few steps back from the man…and found herself encompassed by the most powerful set of arms she had ever felt. Glancing up, she saw that it was Brett, and from the looks of him, he was not happy.

* * * *

Brett could barely believe that Ellie was his sometimes. He patted the package in his pocket. His mother’s wedding ring—he was taking it everywhere now, just in case. He was going to ask Ellie to marry him and his brothers and Gray. All he needed to do was discuss it with them now and find the right time to propose. She was so beautiful. He remembered how she had trembled before him just a few short minutes before. Even dressed as a man, she was a vision of

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beauty and a perfect ideal of feminine beauty. In one instant, his feelings went from the joy of soft reminisces to angry jealousy. He’d looked over at the bar and seen Ellie pull the man’s face to hers, and he saw the man descend on his beautiful woman. He leapt forward, scattering the patrons in his way as he did, and he was behind her in seconds, catching her as she stepped backward from the man’s advances. “Get behind me, Ellie,” In a quieter, but still angry tone, he said, “I’ll deal with you later.” “Brett, don’t. Don’t lose your head here.” He shot her a fierce look. “Get. Behind. Me. Ellie.” Something in his tone told her that she had better not argue with him anymore. “Fine. Be a Neanderthal.” She crossed her arms. He was focused so intently on the intruder, who stood blinking stupidly in his pancake makeup and girly tutu, that he hardly registered her remarks. Something about the man’s stance seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place it, and anyway, he had taken advantage of his woman. He couldn’t go around just kissing whomever he pleased like that. “Hey, buddy,” he said, tapping the man roughly on the shoulder. “You wanna explain what you were doing there? That woman’s engaged.” “Hey, Brett, take it easy,” he heard Joe say to him in a soft tone. His anger was close to boiling over, and he wasn’t going to be pacified until he figured out just what in the hell that man thought he was doing. “Engaged? What are you talking about, Brett?” Ellie said, and he could hear the anger in her voice. “Yes, that’s right. My brothers and Gray and I are going to ask you to marry us,” he said, taking the package from his pocket and holding it toward her. “So much for romance,” Ellie remarked, looking at the package. “So, you think that, because we slept together, and because you ask

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me, I’m going to say yes, right? Because I’m just like your property now and I have no say in what happens to me?” “Well, you are going to say yes. I mean—” “Oh my God. I don’t want to hear anything more. I’m leaving,” Ellie said, turning away. “Ellie!” Gray was behind her now. He grabbed her arm, but she shrugged off the gesture. “Leave me alone!” she said, and very rapidly, turned and began walking away. “Ellie!” he cried as she went to leave. “At least take the package with you,” he said, holding it out to her again. She took it from him gruffly, shooting him a look of death as she did. Then she turned and stomped toward the door. Brett squared his shoulders and turned back to the man who had been drunkenly swaying back and forth in the corner. “Anyway. I still have some business to settle here,” he said. “Oh yeah?” the stranger said. “I wanted to kiss her, so I did. I didn’t see any ring on her finger, and anyway, it doesn’t sound like she wants you that much.” “You bastard,” Brett hissed. Just as he did this, Gray grabbed at his arm, trying to pull him away, but it was too late. The grab only succeeded in throwing off the aim of the punch so that it caught the stranger on the side of his jaw, instead of square in the nose. The man immediately went rag doll and toppled to the ground. Something that had held Brett like a spell was now broken, and he stood stupefied while Gray leapt forward to inspect the damage, and Joe bolted from behind the counter to hold him back. “Mellie!” he called. “Get me some ice and a rag.” She had it ready in a second. “You, Brett, better go cool off now,” she barked at him. Gray took the rag and began mopping the blood and smeared makeup off the man’s face. “Brett, you idiot,” he said. “What?” Brett asked, looking down at him.

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“You’ve just punched your own brother!”

* * * *

The music pounding in the bar drained out the door as Ellie ran outside into the chill night air. Angry tears streaked her face. She could not believe that Brett would be so possessive when she was just talking to some stranger! He did want to control her! She thought back to the cool way he had handed her the panties. She had thought that they were just playing an erotic game and that she could trust him, but he obviously hadn’t been considering her feelings at all. Wiping away the tears, she saw the smudges on her hand, indicating that the eyebrow penciled mustache was now fatally smeared, and with a few angry swipes at her upper lip, she rubbed it out. Limply, she fumbled over to the side of the building where the golden aura of the streetlights did not reach, away from the few stragglers hanging around outside. Taking a deep breath, she opened the package. It was wrapped clumsily in pink paper that seemed to give at the slightest touch. Not a poor metaphor for my new relationship, Ellie thought ruefully. Inside the paper was a tiny box. She opened it and found the most beautiful ring she had ever seen. In the center sat a large diamond and trailing it on either side were two smaller diamonds, one for each brother and Gray. It caught a thin strand of light coming from the taillights of an escaping car, and every one of the diamonds shimmered a violent red, the largest one most of all. She could not believe that this was how he had chosen to propose to her. So casually, as if the fight were more important to him than this momentous occasion. The nerve of him thinking that she would just say yes no matter what! The way that he had said “I’ll deal with you later” as though she was just a child. She felt enraged by Brett’s pigheadedness, but worse, she was ashamed at her own behavior and how easily she had let herself be ruled by some oversexed meatheads!

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She looked up and saw Gray walking towards her. She looked away. She didn’t want to talk to him. It was too late—she was unmistakable in the tight black suit. “Go away,” she said to him when he was within earshot. “Ellie,” Gray said in mock disapproval, “that’s not a nice thing to say.” “Don’t you dare chastise me now. I’m not in the mood for it.” Gray leaned against the wall next to her. He tried to put an arm around her, but Ellie shook it off. “Ellie,” he said, his voice softening, “Brett doesn’t mean to be like that. He’s just…hot-blooded.” “I didn’t see you stepping up to stop him.” “Then you didn’t stay long enough. I tried to pull him off.” “Fine. Whatever.” “Ellie, why are you so angry? He was just trying to show how much he cares, in the only way he knows how.” “Oh, you mean, with violence? I’m sorry, but I didn’t realize I was getting a caveman for a husband.” “A husband? What?” “Yeah. Brett proposed to me. Or at least, he handed me a ring. He never really asked me if I would marry him though.” “What the—He proposed to you behind our backs?” “Like I said, he didn’t really propose to me. He was too busy trying to get into a fight. Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to say yes.” “Why?” Gray slumped farther down against the wall. “The four of you just want to control me anyhow. Well, I’m not going to stand for that.” “Ellie,” Gray said, in a pleading tone, “I don’t want to control you. I just know what’s right for you.” “Oh, you mean better than I know what’s right for me?”

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“Maybe. When it comes to your safety. You weren’t even going to go to the doctor’s after that fall, and here you are, walking out alone, in the middle of the night.” “I can’t believe you, Gray. Here I thought you were going to come and tell me that I was right to feel angry. But you’re just like the rest of them, just like all men. You can’t be trusted to hold a person’s feelings. You’re just thinking about your own the whole time. And I did go to the doctor’s. I can take care of myself. You stay out of it.” “Ellie, that’s not fair.” It was too late. She had already started walking away, fast.

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Chapter 10

Ellie walked so quickly she could barely breathe. Her head hurt from crying. She had been a fool to think that the men wanted for anything above sexual control. Cars passed her in the night, rocketing away to distant towns where they were likely going to happier, more peaceful lives. As she walked, though, her anger began to cool. Just a little. Just enough so that she felt slightly sorry for walking away. But then, just as quickly, her anger would return when she thought about Gray coming over and telling her what to do. Her mind reeled. She didn’t know what to do, and so, she just kept walking. At the back of her mind, too, was the kiss, plaguing her like the little pain over her temple that pulsed on and off here and there. She did not doubt that she had felt a strange connection to the man, and she felt guilty and ashamed of the attraction at the same time. In some ways, Brett had been right to be jealous, and she knew it. That didn’t justify the way he had behaved, though, especially the lackadaisical way he had pushed the ring toward her, as though fighting was the only thing on his mind. And he certainly had not listened when she asked him to stop. Instead, he had treated her like a child, shoving her behind him for protection, as if to say “Get in the other room. The adults are doing business here.” Her feet were cold and wet with the chilly dew that lay over the fields, but she wasn’t going to stop. She knew now where she wanted to go. Just as the bright hangnail moon began to descend downwards into a bed of stars, she came up toward the rodeo barn. A few soft nickers from the sleeping horses beckoned to her as she approached.

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In one swift motion, she undid the gates and stepped into the barnyard. The moonlight was bright and eerie, and Ellie had the feeling as though she was walking in a dream. Her tears dried, but her eyes still hurt from crying. She went immediately over to the stall where Tangerine was sleeping. She patted the horse’s nose, and Tangerine snuffled a few times and opened her eyes. She whinnied when she recognized Ellie. Ellie reached over and hugged the sweet horse around its neck. Tears nearly started up again. “I guess you’re all I have now, Tangie. I was stupid to think that anyone would ever care about me, would ever put me first.” Suddenly she had an idea. She would go for a midnight ride. She knew where all the tack for the horses was kept. The thought put a nervous shiver down her spine. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about riding, especially riding alone. And Tangerine was known around the barn as a skittish horse, although Ellie had never had any problems with her. Still, she had ridden once without incident, and it hadn’t been so bad. Here, another note of regret ran through her, thinking how it was the men who had encouraged her to do so. She was a little scared, but she wouldn’t go far. A night ride would clear her head and make it easier to decide what to do in the morning. In a moment she had the bridle and saddle on. Tangerine flared her nostrils nervously as Ellie did all this, the change in her routine unsettling her. “Don’t worry, girl,” Ellie cooed. She felt strangely serene and confident about her decision. “It’ll be all right.” She led Tangerine out of the stall and down the aisle. In the barnyard, she saddled and bridled the horse up, feeling the mare stamp nervously a few times as she did this. Tangerine was obviously a more anxious horse than Merry, but with the hustle and bustle of the rodeo, it was hard to imagine any horse staying very calm.

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