Publisher’s Note: This title is also contained in the “Naughty List” box-set collection.
Joy hitches a ride headed to the Double R ranch looking for work. She is desperate to find a place to stay before the snow flies; however, she isn’t prepared for feelings the large, sexy and entirely dominant man, who finds her, stirs up deep inside her. Living on the road has been hard and with her past, she should stay and beg for the job. But running is easier than dealing with her fears and these new feelings, isn’t it?
Nick is used to being in charge, after all he has been the one taking care of his brothers for years. He knows just what Joy needs – and he’s more than willing to put her over his knee and give it to her. Nick is also used to people leaving. He is not used to having a chance to change it. Can he find her, convince her to trust him, and bring her back? Will Nick be able to bring Joy into his home and his heart, and keep her there – for good, not just for Christmas?
Nick Russell stalked up the wooden steps to his family’s ranch home and slunk over to the shadowy area of the back porch before turning to watch his truck with the patience and experience of a trophy game hunter. He had been paying for his gas at Turner’s Truck Stop, just outside of town, when he happened to glance out the window and saw a hoodlum climbing in the back of his beat-up work truck. He had watched for a few minutes trying to decide what to do about it. The kid wasn’t trying to steal something. No. Maybe he was looking for a ride ? But, there wasn’t much past the Double R. You used to be able to take old highway 70 through to Pinedale until the spring flooding took the bridge out, now they had them detoured around to M-20 and it had been well over two years. Perhaps the kid didn’t know any of that and thought he was just hitchin’ a ride.
He had finally driven home with the stowaway, deciding to figure it out later. Nick had experience with unruly boys. He’d pretty much been raising his brothers for the last six years anyway. He grunted as he remembered why he had been in town in the first place: A call from Tony’s principal. That kid was a just like he had been at the age of twelve. The sad thing was, Nick was going to have to teach Tony the same way his dad had taught him?with his belt. Dang it, he missed his Pops. He hated having to be the bad guy with his siblings, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t do what he had to. He loved them, and he took care of his own.
“Whatcha doing, Nick?” The screen door creaked behind him.
Nick raised his fingers to his lips and motioned his brother back into the house. The kid had just peeked over the side of the truck. He was going to make his move soon. Was he going to make for the road and continue on his journey? What should Nick do? Should he stop him and call his parents or the police? Perhaps after he talked to the kid, the boy would want to call his parents and go home anyway.
He grunted. Kids liked him for some reason. Nick rolled his eyes when the kid jumped to the ground and took off at a stooped run. Yeah, nobody would see him like that, Nick snorted. God, the kid was probably no older than Tony. Nick couldn’t see much of him because of the tattered black sweatshirt and hood over his head, but he was a small kid. Nick would be worried sick if Tony ran away from home. He should probably line this kid up with Tony and whup him for his parents. Nah, he’d talk to him, set him straight, help him out?
Wait. Why the heck was he going to the barn instead of the road? Well, perhaps there was more to this than Nick had thought. He turned and opened the screen door, might as well find some lunch. He’d figure it out later; it had been a long morning already.
“I thought you were going to the horse auction?” Nick asked the next oldest of his brothers as he hung his coat on the hook by the door. He shivered as the warmth from the cheery kitchen reminded him just how cold it was outside.
“Nah, I changed my mind.” Sam peered out the window of the door behind Nick. “What were you looking at?”
“You missed your ride, didn’t you?”
“No I?yeah. Yeah, I just can’t believe Hank wouldn’t come and wake me up,” Sam complained. “I really wanted to go and Hank knew it.” He came away from the door distracted by the sandwich makings Nick was laying out. Sam grabbed up a slice of cheese and shoved it in his mouth.
“If it’s not important enough for you to get up, then it must not have been important enough. You know how I feel. I don’t know how you are surviving in college alone?” Nick looked over at him while he put the mayo-slathered bread over his slice of swiss.
“I shouldn’t have even come home; you still treat me like a dumb kid!” Sam stalked from the room, shoving an offending chair out of the way when his toe came in contact with it. “I should have driven myself to the auction!” he shouted from the hall.
“It was probably half over by the time you got up,” Nick called out, “and you probably don’t have enough gas money because you still haven’t found a job.”
The bedroom door slammed, telling Nick exactly what Sam thought of that. Maybe he shouldn’t have added the bit about the job. It was the truth, though. Everybody on the ranch had to work, even the brothers. Nick paid the boys for their work, even though they all owned a piece of the ranch. He wanted them to have a respect for hard work, somehow Sam was still lacking that. He’d been away at college and had just come home for Christmas break. Of course, Nick had paid for all of his tuition and books and even given him a little allowance. However, he wanted Sam to have to work for something, so he didn’t give much. Sam was not happy about it. He still acted like he was entitled, and refused to get a job. Or was it refusal? Maybe he was trying? Oh hell.
Nick sat down at the table with his ham sandwich and thought again about the kid in the barn. Just what he needed, another kid to deal with. Well, that kid could wait until he finished his lunch. He took a bite of his cold pickle and frowned, looking at the limp green, store-bought spear with distaste. He missed Millie. She should have canned more pickles this fall. As it was, he’d ended up giving most of her garden harvest away to people in town.
How in the world was he going to make it feel like Christmas without Millie? He sighed and looked around; they needed to get out their decorations, needed to go find a tree. He should have bought some cookies or something while he was in town. Something to make the boys feel more festive. The stores were selling all that Christmas stuff, he was sure. They’d been advertising ever since Halloween. Millie usually helped him make Christmas special for the boys.
It was Charlie he was most worried about. Oh no. Nick jumped from his seat and left his sandwich half eaten on the table. What if that kid went near Sultan? He grabbed his coat off the peg and ran toward the barn.
Charlie was the only one who could do that. Sultan would kick the stall down and stomp the kid to death if he went near him. Anything out of the normal disturbed Sultan. It was dangerous to have him around, but he was angelic for Charlie and he didn’t have the heart to take him away after Charlie had taken their dad’s death so hard. Then Millie.
Millie wasn’t just their housekeeper, she’d been with them since they were little. Their own mother had died when Tony was just a year old, so Millie was the only mother figure Tony knew. And Charlie, well? Charlie was just so closed off.
Nick moved through the barn with a purpose. He didn’t play hide and seek, searching for the kid. He was always the worst case scenario type guy, anyway. He went straight to Sultan’s stall in the farthest back add-on, and he was never so happy to see the black horse. The devil of a beast seemed calm enough until Nick came in. He watched for a minute as the horse whinnied at him, laid his ears back, and started to stomp.
“Calm down, I’m just looking.” Nick’s eyes carefully scanned the stalls, the haymow and grain box before landing on the horse again. Sultan lifted his front feet and whinnied again, this time louder as he turned in his stall and moved toward the back. “Okay, okay? I’m leaving.”
Nick made his way back through the barn at a much slower pace, scanning all of his favorite hiding places. Oh yes, he had grown up here, there were many perfect hiding places in a barn this size.
When he walked out of the barn a half hour later, without finding the hoodlum, he started to question his ability to seek. Was he losing his knack? He couldn’t let the boys find that out. Damn, he was getting old.
Wait a minute, was that someone in the bunk house? Hadn’t everyone gone to the horse auction? Ah ha! The kid was probably looking for something to eat. Perhaps he wasn’t a local kid running away from home, after all?
Joy dried her face on her dirty shirt. What a fat lot of good that had done? She may as well have just applied her filth right back to her face, but still, it had to be a little better. It was warm water and there was even soap! The water in most of the public restrooms she had been using was cold, so she hadn’t washed herself in weeks because she was already so cold. She only had her sweatshirt, she didn’t want to be any colder. She stuffed the extra shirt in her backpack and pulled the hoodie back over the slightly cleaner shirt she’d changed into. Another glance in the mirror and she tried to comb her fingers through her ratty hair. Gosh, how she wished she could buy another box of hair dye. It was only five dollars or so, but five dollars might as well be a thousand in her book. Her natural blonde had grown out four inches or more since she’d dyed it last. It was a shocking contrast to the black she’d adopted.
There was nothing she could do about it. If they didn’t give her the job because she looked like a homeless person? She couldn’t even finish her own thought. She rubbed her palm against her eyes forcing herself not to succumb to the tears that threatened, then remembered?eyeliner. Where was her eyeliner? She reached into the backpack again; she had to have her eyeliner. Her hand had just locked onto the pencil when she heard the thud of the bunkhouse door.
Oh crap. Somebody was here. She had made sure it was vacant before entering. It must be someone from the main house, the rancher?
“I know you’re in there, kid. I saw you.” She heard his gruff voice from outside the bathroom door. She’d never get the job now. “Come on out. I’m not going to hurt you,” he called again.
Well, he didn’t sound angry, but that could be a trick. She knew men; they were all pigs. Yeah, now he says he isn’t going to hurt her and every man who’d said that had really meant? looking around for an escape route, she saw the bathroom window. Could she go out the bathroom window?
She slid the window open as quietly as she could. She should have known better than to believe in Christmas miracles. Nobody would hire her; it was always that way. She wasn’t good for anything?
“Oomph.” She hit the ground in an ungraceful heap since she’d had to go out the window head first. She shook it off, pulled her hood up, took a deep breath of the cold air, and took off running.
“Wait just a minute!” The deep voice met her ears, he was close behind her. “Wait right there? You little hoodlum.” He grabbed the shoulder of her sweatshirt. “You’re going to tell me what you’re doing, because there is nowhere for you to go out here anyway.”
Joy turned around, swinging at him. “Let me go, you bastard.”
“You skinny little, no good?” He pulled her hood off. “?g-g-girl? you’re a girl?” Her released long hair had spilled out around her shoulders. Oh yeah, it would be easier if men didn’t know she was a girl most of the time, but not enough to cut her hair. The last couple days she had been plenty thankful for the added warmth the mop of unruly waves gave her.
“Whad’ya got there, Nick?” Another man in a flannel shirt and jeans came out of the house, striding toward them. He had the same look as the man he called Nick.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. The little rat rode out here in the back of my truck.” Nick glared down at Joy, his gold eyes flashing angrily at her. “I’m waiting,” he growled.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be scaring the little lady half to death.” The younger man tipped his tan Stetson and winked one tawny eye at her. Her mouth slammed shut. Had it been hanging open?
“Sam, she’s a kid, dammit! Don’t you even think about it or I’ll kick your ass.” Nick let go of her long enough to give Sam a mighty shove. “Get back in the house.”
“If she’s a kid, then I’m a ballerina.”
“You’re an idiot, but I’m still big enough to kick your ass?”
Joy took the opportunity to try to make a run for it. She didn’t make it four feet and she was scooped into strong arms and enveloped with a masculine scent that was all cowboy: leather, pine and?
“Where the hell do you think you’re going? It’s a half hour back to town, so why the hell did you get in my truck if?okay enough of this. We are going to have a friendly chat. Let’s go.”
“You let me go!” Joy didn’t care who he was?she didn’t like men, didn’t trust them. Good-looking, nice scent?it didn’t matter. It all happened at once. She kicked his shins wildly at the same time she bit the arm closest to her mouth.
“Arrgh! You little hellcat.”
“Nick, you’re scaring her, let her go.”
The one called Nick let her go so fast she fell backwards to her seat. The other came to her aide, reaching for her hands to help her up. “Are you okay? Nick won’t hurt you, honest. You’re safe here. I’m Sam.”
Joy let him take her hands and pull her to her feet. “Thank you.” She tried to dust herself off. Her hands were shaking. She watched as Nick turned away from her and looked to be scratching his head.
Sam held his hand out to her. “Come inside. I’ll get you some cocoa and we’ll talk.” Inside the sunny kitchen a minute or so later, Sam pulled out a chair at the table. “Please, sit.”
“You know, I really should get going; it’s a long walk to town.”? She hesitated, but the cocoa would warm her up and she really didn’t want to walk to town?
“I’ll drive you back to town later, I promise. Do you mind if I have a sandwich? I haven’t eaten yet. Oh, do you want one too?” He was already reaching for the bread.
It was obvious, by their resemblance, that the two men were brothers, from the flashing gold eyes to the golden wheat-colored hair, but their personalities were at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Her eyes went from the sandwich fixings on the counter to the half-eaten sandwich still plated next to her. “I? yes? please?”
How could she tell him that her mouth was watering and she would be happy to eat the scraps of the one sitting next to her? She had counted out the last of her change for the coffee at the rest stop that morning and the muffin that Sue, the waitress, had given her (because it was a day old and going to be tossed, so she’d been told) was the first thing she’d eaten in two days. Well, she’d had crackers. She had gotten pretty good at snatching cracker packets at the restaurants she stopped at for coffee sometimes. And she ate them very sparingly.
She was only halfway through the sandwich he had given her, when the older man came into the kitchen. The room felt instantly colder and Joy didn’t think it was just from the burst of wintery air that rushed in before the door could be pushed closed again. She shouldn’t have eaten so fast; now she felt way too full. What if she got sick?what if she threw-up? What would they think if she just wrapped the rest of her sandwich in a napkin and put it in her backpack to save it for later? She took a couple deep breaths and reached for her mug of steamy cocoa. She focused on it so she didn’t have to look at the huge cowboy who was pulling out the chair and sitting down by the half-eaten sandwich at the head of the table.
“I’m really sorry if I scared you. It wasn’t my intention. My name is Nick, by the way.”
“I’m Ember.” She had no intention of looking his way?until he snorted. Then she had to.
“You are not Ember. What is your real name, young lady?” he asked in a deep sexy voice, his brows wrinkling. No one had ever questioned her name, well no one had cared in years.
“Joy? Do I look like a Joy to you?” she demanded. Did she need this third degree?? She just wanted a job.? What would they do if she just got up and left?? She could wrap the rest of her sandwich in a napkin and put it in her backpack to save it for later.
“Actually, that is a lot better. Now, are you ready to tell me why you snuck into my truck?” There was a sternness in his voice, a parental tone?something she hadn’t heard in so long. A wave of longing washed over her.
?“Are you running away from home, Joy? How old are you?” Sam asked.
She shook the fuzz from her brain, glanced back to Nick quickly, then back to Sam before answering, “I’m twenty and I’m not running away from anyone. The waitress at the truck-stop said you guys were looking for a housekeeper. I didn’t have a ride out here, so I hitched along.”