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Authors: LuAnn McLane

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BOOK: He's No Prince Charming
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11
Hit Me with Your Best Shot
“Holy shit,” Trace muttered when he and Grady entered Dewey’s and spotted Dakota and Sierra through the archway, sitting at a table. “They’re doin’ shots.”

“Yeah, this could get ugly,” Grady agreed with a shake of his head.

Trace flicked a concerned glance at Grady and was glad he had asked him to come along. “Let’s get them the hell outta here.”

“Just hold on,” Grady said, and put a restraining hand on Trace’s arm. “I can pretty much assure you that Sierra won’t leave unless she damned well wants to. Trying to strong-arm her outta here will only make her want to stay. I say we go over there in the corner where they can’t see us, and keep an eye on things.” He shrugged. “Besides, she’s a regular here and can take care of herself.”

Trace angled his head at Grady. “Has she ever been in here lookin’ like she looks tonight?”

“What do you mean?” Grady asked, and squinted to get a better view of Sierra.

“Dakota must have done some sort of makeover on her, because she sure looks hot.”

Grady turned and narrowed his eyes at Trace.

“Hey, it’s an observation. She’s like a sister to me. Damn, Grady, you’ve got it bad.”

“Like you don’t?” Grady asked in a low voice, so as not to draw attention to them. “I’ve tried forever to get you here, and all it took was knowin’ Dakota was in the house and in need of your protection.” While bat-ting his eyes, he put his hand to his chest. “My hero,” he crooned in a high-pitched voice, and was rewarded with an elbow jab to the gut. “Ouch!”

“I feel an obligation to her mama and daddy to keep an eye on her. That’s what got me here.”

“Right. And I’ll buy that swampland you’re sellin’ too.”

Trace was about to snap back when he noticed the young guys at the bar watching Sierra and Dakota. “Those dudes musta bought them the drinks.”

Grady looked in the direction Trace indicated and growled, “Let’s kick us some ass.”

It was Trace’s turn to put a hand on Grady’s shoulder. “Chill, man. I really don’t want any trouble if we can help it. Let’s stick to the plan of kicking back and keeping an eye on things.” He didn’t add that he didn’t really want to be recognized or talk to anyone.

“If you say so,” Grady reluctantly agreed, but then raked his fingers through his hair and sighed. “Don’t know what the hell’s gettin’ into me. You go sit down over there in the corner, and I’ll get us some beer.”

“Okay.” With his long hair and dark stubble shading his face, and given the dim lighting of the bar, Trace hoped he would fly under the radar, especially in the corner. He really didn’t want to talk about his glory days or the inevitable question of whether he would return to bull riding. He also really didn’t want to see expressions of pity at his scar or feel eyes on his back when he limped. The fact that he also didn’t want to witness guys hitting on Dakota slammed into his brain when a couple of cowboys swaggered over to their table and started chatting them up.

Trace clenched his teeth together and almost stood up when the taller of the two put his hat on Dakota’s head. She laughed and accepted the beer he handed her. Trace shook his head when Grady sat down. “She’s already over her limit,” he grumbled. “I can tell.” He looked across the table and said, “Maybe you’re right and we should just drag them outta here.”

“Well, I don’t think those boys would take kindly to that, Trace. Drink your beer and calm down. It’s Sunday, so it should clear out early and we can get the girls home.”

Trace nodded. “You’re right.” The beer tasted good and cold, but he knew he could drink only a couple and drive home, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let Dakota or Sierra hitch a ride with anyone but him or Grady. So far no one had recognized him sitting in the shadows, and after he polished off the beer he relaxed just a tad.

“Oh, shit,” Grady said when a couple of the young guys started to argue. “I smell trouble.”

“Just sit tight,” Trace warned, but he was on full alert since the shoving was going on very close to Dakota’s table. He had a sneaking suspicion Dakota was going to take it upon herself to say something, and he was right.

“Guys!” Dakota shouted. She stood up and wobbled slightly. “Stop it! Can’t we all just get along?”

“Sit down!” Sierra said, and pointed to Dakota’s chair.

“No. This is silly!” Dakota protested with her hands on her hips, and then gave her attention to the boys. The Toby Keith-style hat she still wore slipped to the side of her head when she said, “Stop it this minute! Fighting is . . .” She paused as if struggling for a word, and finally raised a finger in the air and loudly proclaimed, “Stupid!”

By this time, everyone in the bar had stopped doing their various bar activities, including the band that was setting up, and turned their attention to Dakota and the anticipation of a fight. Trace looked around for the bouncer, who must have used the only moment he was needed to take a trip to the men’s room.

“What should we do?” Grady asked.

“I don’t—” Trace began, but when the argument heated up and Dakota decided she should put herself between the two cowboys with her hands extended, he knew he had to step in.

“Get outta the way, little lady,” one of the cowboys warned in a John Wayne-sounding voice. While his attention was diverted, the other guy took a swing at him way too close to Dakota for Trace’s comfort.

“Dakota, sit your ass down!” Sierra shouted.

“Damn it!” Trace pushed his way into the room and snagged Dakota around the waist just as one of the cowboys took another swing. He saw the punch coming and twisted her out of the way, but ended up getting clipped on the side of his face. He staggered sideways and came down hard on his bum leg, nearly losing his balance, but braced his hand against the wall and remained upright. His arm remained around Dakota, and when she started to wiggle away he held her tightly and said in her ear, “Stop it. You’re going to get me into a fight.”

“But—”

“But nothin’, Dakota. Now, are you comin’ peacefully or do I have to toss you over my shoulder?”

“Peacefully,” she assured him.

“Good,” he said, and eased his grip around her waist, but remained at her side as she walked back over to her table. Grady was with Sierra, who was busy paying the tab. The big, bald bouncer hurried into the room and hefted both boys toward the door and then turned to Trace.

“Trace Coleman?” he boomed, and extended a big, beefy hand. “Bo Mason. Man, it’s good to see you in Dewey’s. I hope you come in more often. I’ll make sure people don’t bug the hell outta ya.”

“I appreciate that,” Trace said, and shook the bouncer’s hand. In truth, he was surprised that he didn’t really want to leave.

“Thanks for steppin’ in,” Bo said, and gave Dakota a stern look. “You should stay outta bar fights, Princess.”

Dakota shook her head. “Why does everyone call me P-Princess?” She tried to look up at the bouncer, but the rim of the hat tilted forward and shaded her eyes. “Huh? Why? My princess days are done. Over. Now I’m just . . .” She sighed heavily and continued, “I don’t know what I am.” She twisted to look up at Trace. “What am I?”

“Well,” Trace held back a grin. “You’re drunk—I can tell you that much.”

She gave him a pout. “A teensy bit tipsy is all I am.”

“Right.”

Bo the bouncer chuckled. “You’d better get your girlfriend home, Trace.”

“Good idea,” Trace responded, and didn’t correct Bo on the girlfriend comment, figuring that the big guy would keep a careful eye on Dakota when he wasn’t around if he thought they were together. He turned to Grady and said, “I’m getting her home. Are you giving Sierra a ride?”

Grady nodded. “Actually, I’ve convinced Sierra to hang out here for a while. But yeah, I’ll get her home.”

Trace looked at Sierra. “You okay with that?”

She nodded but appeared a bit flustered. “Yeah, I’ll get my truck tomorrow,” she assured him, and walked over to Dakota. “Cowgirl up,” she said, and then lifted her hand to give Dakota a high five.

“Cowgirl up!” Dakota replied, but pretty much missed hitting Sierra’s hand and stumbled forward with the momentum. Trace slipped his arm around her waist and held her up.

The cowboy hat tumbled to the floor, but when Dakota leaned forward to pick it up, Sierra said, “You go ahead. I’ll get the hat to its rightful owner.”

“Thank you, Sierra. You’re a good friend.” She blinked as if ready to cry and said, “I messed this up, didn’t I? God, I am such a
bad
cool redneck chick. I suck, don’t I?”

“You don’t suck.”

“Yes, I do,” she complained.

“Okay, you sucked a little,” Sierra admitted, and gave Trace a sympathetic you’ve-got-your-hands-full wince. “Just don’t hurl in Trace’s truck.”

Dakota leaned back heavily against Trace, but tilted her head up to look at him. “I won’t. I have a very strong constitution. Wait, is that the right word?”

“Yes, and I hope you are right. Now let’s get you some fresh air, okay?”

“Yep. Just help me walk just a tiny bit.” She turned and gave a pathetic little finger wave to Sierra and Grady.

“Just lean on me,” Trace said, and held her firmly around the waist. He wished he could simply carry her to his truck, but he didn’t want to draw any more unwanted attention to them, and he wasn’t sure how his damned leg would hold out. “We don’t have far to go,” he reassured her as he approached the front door.

“Take care of your lady,” Bo the bouncer said as he opened the front door for them.

“I will,” he answered, and assisted Dakota across the parking lot. When he got to the passenger’s side of his truck, he opened the door, but then said, “Are you feeling okay, or should we sit here for a few minutes while you get some air?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I told you I have a very strong disposition.”

“Constitution.”

“Yeah, that too.” She sighed and looked at the big step up. “It sucks to be short. Help me up, okay?”

“Sure,” Trace said, and spanned his hands around her waist. He made quick work of hefting her onto the seat, but not before his body reacted to having her slide up against him. After closing the door, Trace inhaled a deep gulp of air, trying to get her soft, sultry scent out of his head. He knew he had to maintain control. It wasn’t fair to take advantage of her inebriated state; he had come here to protect her from exactly what was going on in his head that very moment.

God, I want her.

Trace told himself it was simply because it had been so long since he had been with a woman, but deep down he knew it wasn’t true. He didn’t want just any woman. He wanted Dakota Dunn, and he was going to have to fight like hell not to give in to his desire. So when he slid behind the steering wheel, he didn’t even look at her, and kept his attention on the road.

“I know I’m disgusting,” she said in a small voice after about a mile of driving.

Trace reluctantly turned to look at her, but she was gazing forlornly out the passenger’s window. “You’re not disgusting,” he quietly insisted, even though he didn’t want to show kindness or care. He wanted to keep his damned distance.

She sighed and turned his way. The impact of her luminous eyes and her sweet smile hit him with hurricane force. “You’re just being nice.” She sighed again. “I just wanted to fit in for once. But I never do.”

“You don’t have to fit in, Dakota. Just be yourself.”

“That’s the problem,” she said softly, and God help him, but a fat tear slid down her cheek. She sniffed and turned her head back to gaze out the window. “Don’t mind me. I’ve had too much to drink. What was I thinking, doing shots?”

Trace gripped the steering wheel harder. “You were just having fun. No harm done,” he added as he turned up the hill toward the marina.

“I’m sorry for ruining your night. Just drop me off and head back to have some fun of your own,” she said, but when he remained quiet, she turned her attention back to him. Knowing that looking at her would be a mistake, he kept his eyes on the road. “I’m really very sorry. I assured you I wouldn’t be a pain in the ass, and that’s all I’ve been. I promise to stay out of your hair from now on,” she stated firmly, but with a quaver in her voice that he couldn’t ignore, especially when he knew she had mistaken his silence for anger.

“I’ll walk you over to your cabin,” he said curtly after killing the engine.

“I’m fine,” she responded with a lift of her chin, but when she reached for the door handle, Trace leaned over and put a restraining hand on hers.

“Stay put until I can help you down. It’s a big step, and I don’t want you to fall.”

“Okay,” she said, but he could read in her eyes that she was going to yank on the handle as soon as he let go.

“Oh no you don’t,” he said, and slipped his arm around her waist. He opened his door with his other hand and scooted her across the bench seat with him.

“Hey!” she protested, and kicked her feet when he easily hefted her over his shoulder.

“Stop!” he said, and gave her a swat on the butt.

“Why, you!” she sputtered, but he just laughed.

It wasn’t until he had her on her own porch that he realized he hadn’t even given a thought to his leg. He wasn’t too happy that she had left her front door open, but he took advantage of the fact and carried her inside and flicked on a light.

“Put me down!” Dakota insisted with some real heat in her voice. “Right this instant!”

BOOK: He's No Prince Charming
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