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Authors: LuAnn McLane

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BOOK: He's No Prince Charming
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Dakota hadn’t ever really considered that. “I miss the music more than anything, I guess.”

“Yeah, but wasn’t it amazing singing up on stage?”

Dakota nibbled on the inside of her cheek for a second. “You know what? I never really did feel comfortable in the spotlight. I’d rather be strumming my guitar on the front porch. In fact, I can’t wait to do just that.” She found a cute bathing suit and tossed it at Sierra. “Try this one.”

“So, then it all went to hell in a handbasket?” Sierra persisted as she caught the royal blue tankini that Dakota knew would look great on her.

“You could say that.” Dakota looked down at a yellow bikini, wondering if she had the nerve to wear it, and then looked back at Sierra. “Listen, you promise to keep this between you and me? I mean, we are the only girls here, and we have to stick together.”

“Yeah, you got my word,” Sierra answered so seriously that Dakota instantly believed her. Her green, expressive eyes widened in expectation, and Dakota wanted to tell her she had very pretty bone structure and with a little work she could knock Grady’s socks off.

“I’m here to make myself over.”

Sierra raised her eyebrows. “Here? I thought people left this small town to do that.”

“I’ve been told to sex up my image in a kick-butt redneck way, like Miranda Lambert or Gretchen Wilson.”

Sierra flipped a damp lock of hair over her shoulder. “So what does that have to do with me?”

“Well—and I mean this in a good way—you’re a little rough around the edges. I need to be more like you.”

Sierra gave her a slow smile. “And I need to soften up a bit. Be more like you.” She pointed at Dakota.

“Yeah. We need to tutor each other. I’ll show you how to style up a bit. And you can show me how to be a really cool redneck chick.”

Sierra pursed her lips. “What about the whole bein’ sexy stuff?”

Dakota shrugged. “Guess we’ll both have to practice up on that.” She angled her head toward the door and wiggled her eyebrows. “Now is a good opportunity.”

“So you are into Trace. Thought so.”

“I barely know him.” She arched one eyebrow, leaned forward and whispered, “But he’s sexy as all get-out.”

Sierra’s expression faltered. “He doesn’t think so.”

“Because of the scar?”

“And the limp.”

Dakota frowned. “That’s silly. I barely noticed.”

“Really? What if it were you?” She shook her head. “He was like a rock star on the PBR circuit. He was on top of the world for a while too. Had buckle bunnies chasing him down right and left.”

“Buckle bunnies?”

“Rodeo groupies. No one has been bangin’ down his door since the accident. Dakota, bull riding was his life. Now Trace is a loner. Won’t even venture into town. It’s like his spirit has been broken.”

Dakota felt unexpected emotion well up in her throat. “Well, then, let’s venture over to his hot tub and flirt our butts off.”

“Think we can do it, little Goody Two-shoes?”

“Sure,” Dakota scoffed. “I sang before crowds of thousands. This will be a piece of cake.”

“You gonna wear that tiny bikini?”

“I wear it all the time.”

“Liar,” Sierra said, and laughed.

“And you know this how?”

“Hello, the tag is still hangin’ from it.” She laughed harder and slapped her knee.

“Oh.” Dakota snickered. “Busted.”

“You’re not gonna wear it, are you?”

Dakota held the little scraps of yellow fabric up and scrunched up her nose. “No.” She bent over and found a more modest pink two-piece and nodded. “This will have to do.”

Sierra shook her head. “You’d never know you blew in here from L.A.”

Dakota pursed her lips. “I was a fish out of water there. Come to think of it, I’m always a fish out of water.”

“Me too,” Sierra said softly, and then quickly contained herself. “Now let’s get on over there before they drink up all the danged beer.”

Dakota wrinkled her nose. “Beer? Isn’t it a little early for drinking?”

“Oh, Dakota, beer drinkin’ is Redneck 101. None of that sissy wine drinkin’ stuff. And it’s never too early for a beer. Remember that.”

“Okay. I’ll choke one down.”

“One?” Sierra waved a hand in her direction. “Girly-girl, you got some learnin’ to do.”

Dakota laughed, and for the first time in a long while, she felt a measure of excitement that she had made the right decision in coming home.

6
Get My Drink On
“Damn, this cold beer feels good goin’ down,” Grady announced, and took another swig from his longneck.

Trace, who had experienced enough conversation for one day, merely nodded. He was a little ticked at himself for letting Grady talk him into inviting Dakota and Sierra over. He didn’t want to socialize, and he sure as hell didn’t want to see Dakota Dunn in a bathing suit. Well, he did, and that was the problem. He hadn’t been able to get her out of his head from the moment he laid eyes on her, and the last thing he needed was her hanging out in his hot tub.

“How in the hell do you think those two got themselves all tangled up in the shower like that?” Grady asked with a low chuckle.

Trace took a swallow of his beer. “Beats me,” he finally answered. “My guess is that it was Dakota’s doin’. That woman has been a walking train wreck since she arrived—and she just got here. Claims I’ll never know she’s here. Yeah, right.”

“Good luck with that one,” Grady agreed. “She’s flat-out gorgeous.”

For some reason, Grady’s comment set Trace off. “Don’t even go there. She’s off-limits.”

Grady raised his bottle in the air. “Whoa there, Trace. I’m not making a play for her. I can tell she’s on your radar.”

Trace scooted up so fast that he sloshed water over the edge of the tub. “She’s on my radar, all right. That little pop princess is a royal pain in the ass,” he growled. “She’s gonna be nothin’ but trouble.”

“If you say so,” Grady said in a breezy I’m-not-buying-your-crap tone. “Guess they’re not comin’ over anyway,” he added glumly.

“Good!” Trace took another swallow from his bottle, pretending he wasn’t disappointed. “Now we can just relax,” he said, and eased back down into the frothy, churning water. “I suddenly feel like getting my drink on,” he announced, and tossed his empty into the nearby trash can. After it landed with a thump, he snagged another longneck from the cooler behind his head. “I know it’s early, but what the hell. I don’t do this much anymore, and today I feel like it.” Thank God Charley Dunn had rescued him before alcohol had become a crutch. “You ready?”

Grady nodded and tossed his own empty in the trash and then held his hand up for another. “Yeah, buddy!” He caught the bottle midair and twisted off the cap. “Damn, that tastes good after working hard.”

“Yeah, like fishing for a living is work,” Trace said.

“Somebody’s gotta do it. Might as well be me,” Grady answered, and clinked his bottle to Trace’s.

“I hear ya,” Trace responded, and for a moment almost felt like his old self, when Saturday nights meant cutting loose with friends and having fun. For a while, some of his bull-riding buddies had tried to get him out, but when Trace flatly refused again and again, they had eventually given up. He had always known he was tempting fate every time he strapped himself to the back of a bull, and he had suffered his share of injuries and then some. What he hadn’t been prepared for was to be cut down in his prime. Instead of facing his family, his friends, and his fans, he had chosen to lick his wounds in private. But right now he had to admit it felt damned good to hang out with a friend. “This beer sure is going down easy.”

“You got that right.” Grady sighed as he looked up into the trees. “Only thing better than this would be if we had us a couple of girls in this steamy, hot water.”

Trace answered with a disgruntled snort. “Women are shallow creatures with a personal agenda.”

“Whoa now, wait a minute. Sounds like you’re describing me.” Grady pointed his bottle at his chest and laughed.

“If the shoe fits,” Trace shot back, but knew Grady Green much better than that. The young fishing guide might put on like he was a carefree kid, but in reality was a responsible, hardworking, all-around nice guy who deserved a good woman—if there were such a thing. Trace had his doubts.

“All the same, I wouldn’t mind,” Grady began, but then trailed off. He finished, “Well, hot damn.”

Trace followed Grady’s gaze, and his brain echoed the sentiment. Walking across the deck were Sierra and Dakota. Although they were wrapped in towels, bare shoulders and legs indicated bathing suits were underneath.

“Howdy, boys. Got any beer left in that cooler?” Sierra asked in her usual don’t-mess-with-me tone, but Trace noticed she seemed a bit nervous.

“Sure do,” Grady answered with a grin. “Glad you girls could join us.”

“Well, hand a couple over,” Sierra said in her gruff way, but suddenly seemed petite and feminine snuggled in the fluffy pink towel that must have belonged to the pop princess who was standing there quietly and wrapped in a matching towel. And then it suddenly occurred to Trace that,
hello,
Sierra was a girl. She fit in so well with the all-male staff that he usually forgot that fact.

“Bud Light?” he asked.

“Sounds good,” Sierra responded.

“Dakota?”

“Oh, um, yeah. Bud Light would be fine.”

“Comin’ right up.” Trace leaned back and shoved his hand in the cooler. He fished around in the sloshy ice for a couple of light beers and extended them to Sierra and Dakota. When they both stood there for a moment eyeing the beer, he realized that they would have to drop the towels in order to grab the bottles. He wondered why two perfectly fit women would worry about being seen in bathing suits. It occurred to him that he would never understand the opposite sex, but couldn’t help but find their timidity somehow appealing. Women he had known would have been flaunting their bodies in his face.

“Hey, hand Trace your drinks while you climb up here in the tub,” Grady offered. When they still hesitated, he said, “Girls, I think I can vouch for Trace when I say we’re not gonna bite.” He wiggled his fingers. “Come on, let me give y’all a hand up.”

“We’re comin’,” Sierra said a bit defensively, and Trace noticed that she gave Dakota a discreet nudge with her elbow. Then they both let the towels slide from their shoulders to the deck.

Although both swimsuits were modest, Trace heard Grady suck in a breath and had to fight from doing the same thing. Dakota’s pink two-piece revealed just enough torso and cleavage to be sexy, but left enough to the imagination to remain enticing. Sierra’s royal blue tank top exposed a few inches below her belly button, and the high-cut bottom made her legs appear long. Although Dakota’s body was curvier, Sierra was definitely
not
one of the guys. And judging by Grady’s dropped jaw, he noticed too.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Come on in.” When Grady offered his hand to Sierra, Trace felt compelled to do the gentlemanly thing and assist Dakota up the two steps into the hot tub. He tried not to dwell on how amazing she looked, but couldn’t tear his gaze from her body until she slid beneath the churning water.

“Here you go,” Trace said, and returned a cold bottle to each woman.

“Thanks,” Sierra replied, but her gaze flicked over to Grady. Her cheeks were pink and Trace somehow doubted it was because of the hot water. It occurred to him that she was much prettier than he had ever realized, and knew that Grady noticed too.

“Mmm, yeah. Thank you,” Dakota responded, and released a throaty sigh when the water warmed her chilled skin. She took a long pull from the longneck and found it surprisingly refreshing. She wasn’t much of a beer drinker, but the ice-cold brew felt good going down. She drank about a third of the contents before coming up for air, and burped just as the jets turned off. And it wasn’t a delicate burp, but a deep rumble that sounded even louder at the sudden silence.

“Oh! Excuse me!” Dakota said, but the unthinkable occurred when the end of her high-pitched
me
slid into another unexpected burp. Dakota turned wide-eyed to Sierra, who tried to keep a straight face, but then laughed so hard that she sputtered beer right out of her mouth.

Still laughing, Sierra leaned over and clinked her beer bottle to Dakota’s. “Ohmigod, I wish we could rewind and see you do that again. You’re gonna be a quick study.”

“You think?” Dakota asked while wondering if she should be appalled or proud. Probably neither.

“Yeah! I could not have done better!”

“Um,” Grady said while looking from Dakota to Sierra, “have you girls already been drinkin’?”

“Now, why would you think that?” Dakota asked, and just had to laugh. She took another long swig from her beer bottle, and for the first time in a very long while actually started to relax. Crazy, when here she was sitting in a hot tub, drinking beer early in the afternoon (and burping!) with virtual strangers. And yet somehow it didn’t feel that way.

Dakota took another, more careful sip of her beer and looked at Trace beneath her eyelashes. It might have been her imagination, but she thought he appeared more relaxed as well. When he suddenly smiled at a joke Grady was telling, his features softened, making him look young and approachable. But just as quickly, Trace seemed to catch himself and his smile faded. She hated that he worried about his scar and longed to tell him that she had been surrounded by physical perfection and it was overrated.

As if knowing she was thinking about him, he glanced down at his bottle and then over at her. Their eyes met, and something unspoken passed between them, something soft and warm, something with a hint of sexual awareness that felt to Dakota like
hope.
When Trace’s eyes widened just a fraction, Dakota knew he had felt it too. But when she smiled in invitation, Trace turned his head, showing his scarred side as if telling her to not go there.

Dakota felt a hot surge of disappointment and wanted to tell him that she might be frightened of spiders and rodents, but she wasn’t afraid of him. And yet his obvious rejection stung, and so she turned her attention back to Sierra and Grady, who were bantering back and forth. Dakota smiled, realizing that Sierra might think she was simply giving back what Grady was dishing out, but in reality she was flirting.

“Now, Sierra, just what were you and Dakota doin’ in the shower?” Grady asked.

“Just havin’ a little girl time,” Sierra answered, and then wiggled her eyebrows.

“You know you’re killin’ me,” Grady responded with a groan, and sent a small splash her way.

“Hey, watch the beer!” Sierra warned, and put her hand over her bottle as Grady laughed.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of beer and so many Grady Green jokes that by the end of the day Dakota’s sides hurt from so much laughter.

“Well, I don’t know what time it is, but it must be late,” Trace finally announced.

“We’re not goin’ till the beer is gone,” Grady protested, and slapped the water.

Trace leaned back and swished his hand around in the cooler. “Well, we seem to have depleted my supply.”

“Damn,” Grady mumbled, and leaned back with his arms on the edge of the tub. The top half of his nicely defined chest was above the water, and Dakota noticed that Sierra was taking full advantage of the view. “Time for a beer run.”

“I’ll go with you,” Sierra offered. “We can take the golf cart.”

“No way,” Trace said sternly. “You can still get a DUI.”

“In that golf cart? I can walk faster than that old thing,” Sierra scoffed. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, you can,” Trace answered. “Grady, you’re gonna have to stay here at the marina for the night. I don’t want you driving your truck. Understood?”

“Yes, Dad.” Grady gave Trace a sharp salute.

“Cabin ten is vacant. You two can bunk there.”

“B-both of us?” Sierra stuttered. Her green eyes widened and she looked at Dakota. “I’m just gonna stay with Dakota. If that’s okay with you.” She kicked Dakota beneath the water.

Dakota wrinkled her nose and kicked Sierra back. “I don’t recommend it. The spare bedroom hasn’t been cleaned yet. I’d stay in cabin ten.”

“I can get some fresh linens,” Sierra protested.

Dakota shook her head. “And then you’d have to strip the bed and all that stuff. Don’t you have to be here in the morning to fix breakfast for the fishermen anyway?”

“Sierra has Sundays off,” Trace spoke up. “It’s doughnuts and coffee for breakfast. I’ll heat up the leftover chili for lunch, and then pizza later when the new crew of guests arrive.”

Grady suddenly stood up, sloshing water everywhere. “I’ll settle this right now,” he announced, and then extended his hand to Sierra. “Come on, now. I told you I don’t bite. I’m off tomorrow too, and we can sleep in. I will be the perfect gentleman,” he added.

“Yeah, right, like you even know how,” Sierra scoffed, but then swallowed hard and stared at Grady’s hand.

“Hey, I resent that,” Grady said, and tried, but failed, to pull off an offended expression. He leaned over and grabbed Sierra’s hand. “Come on, Sierra, we’re buddies. I’m not gonna try anything.”

Dakota watched Sierra’s face fall, but then she allowed Grady to hoist her up. “Yeah, like I’d let you. Try anything, buster, and I’ll kick your ass.”

“I bet you could,” Grady said and laughed.

“You know it,” Sierra shot back as she stepped over the side of the hot tub. She grabbed her towel and wrapped it around her wet suit. “I have to put dinner out for the campers. Luckily, it’s chili, so no big deal.”

“I’ll help.” Grady picked up his own towel, dried his chest and then slapped it over his shoulder. “See y’all later,” he said, and waved in the direction of the tub, but then continued to banter with Sierra all the way across the deck and down the driveway.

Dakota was so intent on listening to their conversation that it took a moment for it to sink in that she was sitting alone with Trace—in a hot tub, no less. When Trace tipped the bottle up to his mouth, Dakota watched the long column of his throat as he swallowed. Her gaze dropped to his broad shoulders and then to his muscled chest that seemed deeply golden next to the blue water. His nearly shoulder-length dark hair was damp and slicked back from his bronzed face. Male perfection, save for the scar that somehow made him seem starkly masculine and added an edge of danger that awakened something deep and wanton in Dakota’s blood.

BOOK: He's No Prince Charming
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