Destiny Saunders is tough, but being left at the altar makes even the toughest gals do some strange things. When she stumbles upon a stranded cowboyBuck Owens Cash, the best thing to arrive in Lizard Gulch, Arizona, in a long timeshe arranges things so they can have a little fun before he rides off into the sunset. The sexy, shapely auto mechanic is just one surprise after another, so Buck plays along to see what will happen.
What happens is love the kind that makes a man want to prove himself. Then Buck discovers Destiny's secretone that will tie her to another man for the rest of her life. Betrayed, he returns to the rodeo circuit determined to forget Destiny but fate has other plans!
About the Author
Award winning author Marin Thomas writes western romances for Harlequin and Tule Publishing Group as well as women's fiction for Berkley Books. She graduated from the University of Arizona and she and her husband live in Phoenix. When not writing she spends her free time junk hunting and researching ghost tours. Learn more about Marin's books at www.marinthomas.com or sign up for her newsletter at http://bit.ly/MarinThomasUpdates.
Read an Excerpt
Late Thursday afternoon Destiny Saunders stuck her finger beneath her borrowed wedding veil and scratched her prickly scalp.
Daryl Rivers, where are you?
She stared at the open chapel doors willing her fianc to magically appear.
The bald, rotund minister, who had a habit of clearing his throat every ten seconds, wiped the top of his sweaty head with a handkerchief. The Sunset Desert Chapel did not have central air. A gust of hot August heat blew up the aisle, sending the lace veil soaring into the air.
"Perhaps you'd like to call your young man one more time?" the minister said.
She'd like to call her young man a name that began with a four-letter word. Destiny walked over to the pew where she'd set her purse and removed her cell phone then pressed three.
You've reached Daryl. I'm rockin' 'n' rollin'. Leave me a message.
"Daryl, where are you? We were supposed to get married thirty minutes ago. Call-" Beeeep. Ignoring the queasy feeling in her stomach she marched down the aisle and poked her head out the door. She didn't want to believe Daryl had stood her up.
The sound of a car engine met her ears and relief swept through her-but it was short-lived when she spotted the minister's Cadillac driving off.
And still she waited.
Waited and watched as the afternoon sun dropped lower in the Arizona sky. Her thoughts drifted to Lizard Gulch. What concerned her more than Daryl abandoning her was losing the town she'd grown to love-the one place she felt she belonged.
She fingered the frayed edges of the veil. Violet Hemp would be upset that she hadn't married. The older woman had offered the use of her 1950s headdress as the something borrowed part of Destiny's bridal outfit.
Blast you, Daryl.
Even though they'd known each other only six months, she hadn't expected him to leave her high and dry. She closed her eyes and recalled their first date. Daryl had taken her to a tattoo parlor in Kingman. And since she'd decided to call Lizard Gulch home, she'd gotten a colorful lizard tattooed on the back of her shoulder. Daryl had picked a two-headed snake for his arm. Afterward they'd stopped at the Sonic for shakes and that's when she'd discovered they had more in common than new tattoos-they'd both experienced crummy childhoods.
Destiny hadn't had any contact with her mother in ten years. She'd been thirteen when she'd walked out of the Tomahawk Truck Plaza in Phoenix with only the clothes on her back and ten dollars in her pocket. She rarely reflected on her childhood-growing up in truck stops where her mother entertained men in bathroom stalls wasn't the stuff of fairy tales.
She rubbed her belly. At barely two months pregnant it would be several weeks before she showed. Destiny admitted she didn't love Daryl, and he'd never confessed to loving her, but she'd believed they could make a go of a real marriage for the baby's sake.
Well, crap. Now what?
She retrieved her purse then left the chapel, closing the doors behind her. After stowing her purse and phone in the bench compartment of her 1980 Harley-Davidson Wide Glide hog, she slid on her mirrored sunglasses and straddled the seat, careful to keep her white leather pants from touching the greasy engine. She positioned the two-inch heel of her black biker boot over the kick-starter and jumped down on it with all her measly one hundred and ten pounds. The engine revved to life, and she flipped the stand up then tore out of the parking lot, tires spewing gravel.
The hot wind in her face stoked her frustration, and she pushed the bike's speed to seventy. She'd driven only two miles when she spotted a pickup parked on the shoulder of the road. Dollar signs flashed before her eyes. A stranded motorist needing a tow meant money in her pocket. She pulled off the road and scanned the area-a girl couldn't be too careful these days and she was too smart to walk into an ambush. Assured no one hid in the brush along the road, she turned off the bike and set the stand.
A movement caught her attention and she zeroed in on the pickup, where a pair of cowboy boots stuck out the driver's side window. She approached the vehicle cautiously and peered through the open window, finding a cowboy sprawled inside, his hat covering his face. Snoring sounds echoed through the cab-whether he was sleeping off a drink or resting while he waited for a ride was anybody's guess.
She slapped her hand against the bottom of one boot then jumped inside her skin when the man bolted into an upright position, knocking his forehead against the rearview mirror. His hat tumbled to the floor, and Destiny got her first good look at him.
There was a hint of gold warmth in his brown eyes, the color reminding her of high-grade engine oil. Dark eyebrows stood out on a face framed by shaggy brown hair with sandy highlights. Without the cowboy hat he might easily be mistaken for a California beach bum.
Destiny wasn't used to running into sexy men-she lived in a town full of old people. "Need a lift?"
He glanced out the rear window. "Where's the groom?"
"If I knew the answer to that question, I wouldn't be talking to you right now."
He shoved his hand out the window. "Buck Cash." His deep baritone voice settled over her fringed vest like a soft caress. She shook his hand-thick calluses convinced her that he was the real McCoy, not some wannabe buckaroo.
"Destiny Saunders. Where are you headed?"
"Up to Flagstaff for a rodeo this weekend."
"You mind if I get out of the truck?" he asked.
She backed up. Then backed up again when he stood. The man towered over her five-foot-four frame. She eyed his broad shoulders and deep chest. "Tie-down roping?"
"I ride a bull every now and then." He settled his hat on his head, which added another two inches to his height.
"Where's your horse?" she asked.
"Don't own one. A buddy of mine loans me his when I compete."
This cowboy must only rodeo when he felt like it. "What's wrong with your truck?"
"Puncture in one of the hoses."
She doubted he'd even checked the engine. Ignoring his wide-eyed stare, she walked to the front of the truck. "Pop the hood."
He grinned-brilliant white teeth as straight as a ruler glinted in the sun. Self-consciously she ran her tongue over her crooked eyetooth. Once he released the latch, she secured the hood rod. "The cap looks fine."
He peered over her shoulder and she caught a whiff of musk-scented cologne. There wasn't a hint of wood or lavender or any other smell-it was pure raw male. A quiver that had nothing to do with the morning sickness she'd come down with a few days ago spread through her stomach. Steeling herself against the odd sensation she examined the engine.
"You've got a cracked hose." She stepped back and unhooked the rod then let the hood drop into place. "The nearest mechanic with a tow truck-" her "-is a few miles up the road in Lizard Gulch. You want a lift there?"
"If it's not too much trouble."
She waited by the Harley while he closed the truck windows and locked his gear inside the cab. "Guess you're going to miss your rodeo," she said.
"There's always another one." He eyed the bike. "This your motorcycle?"
"You think I ditched my fianc at the altar and then took off on his bike?"
"Kind of looks that way." He kept a straight face but his eyes sparkled.
"Looks can be deceiving. Hop on." Once he was situated, she jumped on the kick-starter and gunned the engine.
His chest pressed into her back and sweat beaded between her breasts. She'd yet to come across a man who intimidated her, but there was something about the cowboy that put her off-balance. "Where should I hold on?"
"Wherever you want." She checked the mirrors then shot onto the highway. Once the tires gained traction, she shifted gears. When the hog jumped forward, his hands clasped her hips, his fingers squeezing until she felt the pressure against the bone.
Her driving made him nervous. Good.
She hit a straightaway and the hog's speed edged toward eighty. She knew the road like the back of her hand-every pothole, bump and crack in the asphalt- and had complete control of the bike. The first time she'd given Daryl a ride on the Harley, he hadn't been half as nervous as the cowboy.
Speaking of Daryl Funny how she'd forgotten the father of her baby the moment Buck had stepped from the truck. Maybe things had worked out for the best when Daryl had chickened out at the eleventh hour. Had they tied the knot, they'd probably have been divorced inside of a year.
Buck felt like an extra in a Hollywood movie. He'd woken this morning ready to rodeo and now here he was, hitching a ride on a Harley with a runaway bride. He swatted the lace veil away from his face. Life sure had gotten interesting since his older brother Will had all but kicked him off the family pecan farm and told him to get the heck out of Dodge for a while. Buck was the first to admit he'd deserved the banishment.
Will had learned for the first time this past June that he had a fourteen-year-old son. The mother had been a girl he'd taken to the prom his senior year. After Marsha Bugler graduated high school, she'd left Arizona to attend college in California. Buck had kept in touch with her through email and then one afternoon a year ago in March he'd surprised Marsha with a visit on the way home from a rodeo and had met her son for the first time-a teenager who'd looked suspiciously like Will.
Marsha had confessed that Will was the boy's father, then begged Buck not to tell him until she figured out the best way to break the news. He'd agreed to keep Marsha's secret, believing she'd follow through on her promise. A month passed then another and another, and it wasn't until a year and a half later that she wrote Will a letter, informing him that he was a father. Buck didn't blame his brother for kicking him to the curb, and he'd left willingly while Marsha and Will sorted through the wreckage of their past and figured out their future as a family.
Once in a while Buck checked in with his younger sister Dixie, but he never told her his whereabouts. Since leaving home in June, his brother Johnny and his wife, Shannon, had delivered a baby girl, named Addy in honor of Grandma Cash. And just last week
Dixie had texted him the news that Will and Marsha had married.
Almost daily Dixie begged Buck to come home, but he wasn't ready. He couldn't say for sure what kept him away from Stagecoach. He only knew that he didn't want to go back to the same-old-same-old-a rodeo once a month and working on cars in Troy Winters's garage. His brothers were moving on with their lives, and he wanted to move on, also-to where and to what was anyone's guess.
The road curved and Destiny slowed the bike. Buck relaxed his grip on her slender hips as the faint scent of lilacs drifted up his nostrils. He didn't know if the scent came from her skin or the red locks she'd pinned to the top of her head. He dropped his gaze to the bare shoulder in front of him. Crawling out from the edge of the sleeveless vest was a red, yellow and green lizard, its tongue extended toward a tiny tattooed fly. Despite her petite size, Destiny was solid muscle. Maybe she was a personal trainer at a fitness gym-that would explain her toned arms.
One more mile and the bike slowed to a crawl then veered onto a dirt road badly in need of grading. It wasn't until the bike crested a small mesa that he spotted the handful of buildings in the middle of the desert. Twin palm trees stood a hundred feet in the air above the buildings and looked out of place in the dusty barren landscape.
His escort coasted into town-if the place even qualified as a town. He counted six structures. The towering palms guarded the entrance to the Flamingo Inn Resort-a seen-better-days motel that had been converted into a trailer park. A gas station with one repair bay and one pump sat at the end of-he read the street sign-Gulch Road. Carter Towing and Repair had been painted in red block lettering across the front of the whitewashed brick.
The Florence Pastry Shoppe, a two-story Victorian-style home, faced the motel on the opposite side of the street. A giant-sized croissant twirled atop a pole mounted to the roof. Three white rockers sat on the front porch.
Instead of driving to the garage, Destiny parked outside Lucille's Smokehouse Grill and Saloon, which sat next to Dino-Land, a nine-hole miniature golf course whose entrance was guarded by giant plaster dinosaurs, their green paint faded and cracked.
She cut the bike engine and Buck heard the faint sounds of piano music. "What's going on?"
"My wedding reception."
Uh-oh. Even though Destiny didn't act upset, he doubted the jilted bride looked forward to informing her wedding guests there was nothing to celebrate. He caught her arm when she stepped past him. "If you want, I'll tell them the wedding was called off."
For the first time since they'd met, she removed her sunglasses. Buck sucked in a quiet breath as he felt himself being dragged into the undertow of Caribbean blue waters. The eyes staring up at him were perfectly round and easily the largest feature on her freckled face. "Thanks, but it's not a big deal."
Not a big deal? What kind of man had she been engaged to? She climbed the steps to the saloon and he couldn't help but notice that the white leather pants fit her firm little fanny like a glove. The groom had a screw loose if he let a woman like this get away.
"You're welcome to come inside for food and drinks," she said.
The other businesses appeared deserted. The entire population of Lizard Gulch, including the mechanic, Buck guessed, waited inside the bar.
"What's it gonna be?" She tapped her boot heel against the wooden boardwalk. He took the steps two at a time then held the door open for her. As soon as she entered, the piano music switched to "Here Comes the Bride." A group of geriatrics stared-mouths hanging open, their gazes swinging back and forth between Destiny and Buck.
A barrel-chested man who wore his long gray hair in a ponytail eyed Buck suspiciously before speaking to Destiny. "I thought you were marrying Daryl? Where'd you find this guy?"
"He's a whole lot better-looking than Daryl." A skinny man with gray sideburns and a receding hairline patted his chest beneath his cobalt-blue silk shirt.
"This is.. " Destiny sent Buck a blank look.
Holy cow. She'd forgotten his name-that had never happened to him before. Not only was his moniker memorable, but most ladies thought his face was, too. "Buck Owens Cash."
"Buck Owens? Why Buck is one of my favorite country-and-western singers." A blonde lady wearing a strapless rhinestone dress that pushed her wrinkled bosom up to her chin batted her eyelashes.
"Go soak your head in a bucket, Ralph," Sonja said.
"Whoever thought to name their kid Buck Owens Cash must have been a dimwit." A man closer in age to Buck moved to the front of the group. Dressed in a gray suit and red tie, he assessed Buck. "Is Cash your real surname or one you made up to go with your Vegas stage name?"
Stage name? "All three names are for real, and I doubt my deceased mother would appreciate you calling her a dimwit," Buck said.
"Knock it off, Mark. Buck's pickup broke down near the chapel and I gave him a lift into town," Destiny explained.
"You look very hot." Sonja handed him a bottled water.
"Thank you, ma'am." Buck guzzled the drink.
"How come you're late?"
Questions were fired at Destiny from all directions, and she raised her hands in surrender. "Daryl was a no-show."
An elderly man with grizzled cheeks dressed in polyester slacks and a plaid dress shirt appeared at Destiny's side. He tapped his finger against what appeared to be a toy sheriff's badge pinned to his shirt. "Want me to bring him in?"
Was this guy for real?