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Copyright © 2017 by Veronica Blade. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be used or reproduced in any form or by any means whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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The places, characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by author.
For Zayne and Joceline
I’m grateful every single day for you two
Over My Wed Body
When Bailey learns that her longtime crush botched the annulment from their drunken night in Vegas, can she make him see that she and their marriage are worth fighting for?
Growing up, Bailey idolized her brother’s best friend, Hunter. Against her better judgment, she lost her heart to the wild cowboy anyway. But he’d kicked off the dust of their small Texas hometown for big city life, leaving her behind. When they end up in an alcohol-induced Vegas marriage—that Hunter quickly annuls—Bailey returns home crushed and humiliated.
Now Hunter is back, and Bailey is forced to accept his help to save her family’s ranch. Worse, a paperwork error means they’re still married. Fueled by the desire to be free of him so she can heal, she’s completely unwilling to have anything to do with him. But how can she get over him when he’s working so hard to win back her friendship?
Hunter has to undo the unfortunate marriage before his best friend learns what he did with Bailey. More importantly, he must make things right with Bailey—who isn’t cooperating at all. Hunter can’t risk losing the two most important people in his life, Bailey and her brother. But because of Hunter’s growing attraction to her, he’s more confused than ever. And now he’s in danger of losing his heart too.
Some hot chick had hijacked my best friend’s Silverado.
I saw only her backside as she tossed something into the backseat of the truck—probably making room for me in the front—but her arms were toned and her butt perfection. She wore Daisy Duke shorts with cowboy boots and a purple crop top that teased me with a little bare midriff. Judging by her wild curves and long legs, she invested some serious time keeping that body in wicked condition.
I hauled the crate while dragging my luggage through the double doors of Austin-Bergstrom airport toward the curb, slowing my pace to allow more time to gawk. A thank-you was in order to my best friend Blake for arranging my ride—and providing such a prime piece of eye candy. I predicted my drive to the B & B ranch would be surprisingly pleasant. Even if she already had a boyfriend, I could still enjoy the view.
The crate shifted in my hand and Muffin whined. “Hang on, baby. As soon as my bags are loaded, I’ll get you out of there.”
My gaze swept the woman’s body again as she tossed her waist-length auburn hair over her shoulder and swiveled....
My mouth flapped open, and both handles of the luggage slipped from my grasp. I lowered the crate to the concrete. “Bailey?”
“Hey, Hunter.” Her plump pink lips curved up as she spotted me. “Need a ride?”
I wanted a ride from her but the scenario rushing through my brain didn’t require a truck. I blinked, trying to purge those kinds of thoughts. This was Bailey, my best friend’s little sister. Bails, who I’d watched grow up. Being attracted to her wasn’t an option.
“Are you okay?” Bailey aimed her gray eyes at me, her perfectly arched eyebrows drawn.
I hadn’t been back to Bride since before I started my vet internship over a year ago. Actually, I hadn’t seen Bailey since a few months before that, when a bunch of us had met in Vegas for a friend’s wedding. How had she changed so much in so little time?
The Bailey Thayer I’d known most of my life hadn’t troubled herself with girly things like curling her hair. She’d always kept it shoulder-length for easier washing after mucking stables, and it was almost always in a ponytail. Aside from prom or an occasional date, I didn’t remember her wearing makeup. And I’d rarely seen her out of baggie jeans and a loose t-shirt that hid anything remotely feminine underneath. Who knew she had a body like that?
“Of course I’m okay.” I laughed once, then poured on the charm, hoping she wouldn’t notice how she’d thrown me. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
She smirked. “Then get in.”
I steeled myself not to take her words in a sexual way as I bent and reached for the luggage handles—and got a glimpse of her inner thighs as she rounded the hood to the driver’s side. I grimaced, wishing I could go back in time to when she was ten, and I thought of her as my kid sister. Why did she have to wear such short shorts? How could Blake let his sister leave the house wearing so little?
Before I got to the passenger door, two guys strolled past the truck, their gaze riveted to Bailey’s butt. Suddenly in a hurry to get her away from the leering men, I dumped my baggage into the bed of the truck, then climbed into the passenger seat with the crate. If anyone was going to perv on her, it would be me.
Bailey tipped her head toward the crate. “Take him out so I can meet him.”
“Her.” I opened the gate. “C’mon out, Muffin.”
She snorted. “Muffin?”
“That wasn’t my doing. She already knew her name and I didn’t want to confuse her.”
Bailey gasped as Muffin poked her face out of the crate. “She’s adorable. Black and tan King Charlies are my favorite.” She reached toward me and gave Muffin a rub under her chin. “I didn’t think you liked small dogs. How did you end up with her?”
“Got a house call to check out a mare about three months ago and the mare’s owner asked me to examine her puppy. When I told her Muffin had cherry eye and the surgery may not be permanent, she said she didn’t want a defective dog.”
“Seriously? That woman has no soul,” she muttered, starting the engine.
“Yeah, more worried about her pets maintaining perfection than the animals themselves. It gets worse.” I absently rubbed Muffin’s ears between my fingers and her lids lowered. “Then she asked me how much to put the dog to sleep. She ended up payin’ the fee and signed the necessary papers to murder her puppy.”
Bailey scowled as she punched the gas, pulling away from the curb. “So you slipped her the paperwork which signed over ownership and the woman didn’t read what she was signin’?”
I grinned and leaned in to kiss Muffin’s forehead. “And got myself one cool little girl. Best decision I ever made.”
“You’ve had her for three months, huh?” She gave Muffin a quick pat. “Good thing she’s not an actual woman or she would’ve already been rehomed.”
A witty reply stuck in my throat. But what could I say to Bailey when she was absolutely right? I was twenty-six years old and the longest I’d dated any woman was about ten weeks. I couldn’t give any human unconditional love, even my own family—not that anyone would blame me for not liking my parents. The one thing I’d really dedicated myself to was vet school but only because it involved animals. They didn’t betray you like humans did. “True. When I meet a human who isn’t completely flawed, my commitment issues might change.”
Bailey scoffed. “Plenty of good women everywhere. You’re just not payin’ attention.”
But I’d learned the hard way that the people I trusted most would let me down the hardest. The only exceptions I’d found to this rule were the Thayers—Blake, Bailey and their parents.
As I repositioned Muffin and settled in for the long drive, I got a whiff of Bailey. Oh man, she smelled like cherries. I swallowed, stifling the urge to touch her and see if the skin on her legs felt as soft as it looked. Instead, I ran a hand through Muffin’s fur to keep my fingers occupied.
Bailey rotated, glancing over her shoulder to check the next lane. Her crop top inched up and my gaze stumbled on more exposed skin above her waist. This new side of her would add an interesting dynamic to the next few weeks. At the very least, life at the B & B ranch wouldn’t be boring.
When Blake had called two days ago pleading for me to return and stand in for him at the family ranch, my brain searched for any excuse to stay away. But the Thayers had been incredibly generous through my teen years, providing a safe haven for me. Since Blake was wearing a full leg cast, I couldn’t abandon him or his family. Ranch chores had to be done.
Plus, the Thayers already knew I’d recently finished my internship with Dr. Mayfield, and that I hadn’t decided where to set up my equine veterinarian practice. I was also toying with the idea of going back to school for surgery. Regardless of what I ended up doing, or where, I was in limbo. I had no excuse to avoid my family and friends in Bride, Texas.
This trip wouldn’t be all bad though. I truly loved the Thayers and anytime I had come home during college breaks, I always stayed with them. I dropped in on my parents out of obligation. If my parents found out I’d been in town without seeing them—in a town this small, someone would surely sell me out—I would never hear the end of it. Their constant micromanaging was bad enough when I hadn’t actually done anything wrong.
I’d left my hometown of Bride for a good reason—to get away from them. I didn’t want to undo my hard work by growing roots. Deep down, I’d probably always wish for a normal relationship with them, but I kept my expectations pathetically low. Disappointment stung and I’d had enough of that. Texas and the ranch life would always draw me in, but for my own sanity, I wouldn’t stay any longer than necessary and I couldn’t let down the emotional walls I’d built. I let the walls down for the Thayers, to a degree. And Muffin. That was it.
My stay in Bride would last until Blake’s cast came off and not a second longer. But I wasn’t a kid anymore and my adult pride prevented me from being extra baggage to them. I’d get in, help them through this, then get the hell out. I could do this for them. Besides, it’s not like I had any other obligations at the moment.
I just had to keep my hands off Bailey.
Conversation. Something needed to distract me from her and my strange new fascination with her body. “How’s Blake doing?”
“Not great. He’s not used to feelin’ worthless.” She sneaked another peek at Muffin. “He’s been threatenin’ to saw off the cast.”
“What? That’s beyond stupid.” I commanded myself to look at the green light ahead and not at her creamy thighs. “His leg won’t heal properly without the cast.”
She rolled her eyes. “Agreed. But the doctor told him he may never have one-hundred percent use of his leg. So he already knows what to expect there. He figures his odds for a better outcome will be with a different route.”
“I can’t believe you’re related to that guy.” I banged my head on the window. “He can’t get around on his own yet, right?”
She raised one brow. “They’re called crutches.”
After replaying the question in my head, I saw how stupid I’d sounded. But when did she become so sarcastic? I preferred the sweet Bailey who used to hang on my every word. “We’ll make sure any kind of cutting tool is hidden from the moron until he’s no longer insane.”
Her soft laugh sent my skin humming. “It’s all talk. Blake knows he won’t be in a cast forever but he’s anxious to have his life back. When he resumes his duties, you’ll return to L.A. and everything will be right with the world again.”
Did I detect a hint of acid in her tone on the subject of me and my inevitable departure? Now that I thought about it, where was the exuberant hug and adoration Bailey usually lavished on me? I’d been too busy ogling her to notice the lack of warmth in her greeting. She’d been friendly enough not to come across rude, but not sweet like she used to be.
In fact, the last few times Bailey had answered the phone when I’d called to check on Mrs. Thayer, she had barely said a word to me. “Are you mad at me or somethin’? You’ve been different since the Vegas trip.”
Her gaze cut to mine and her mouth straightened, before she returned her attention to the road. “We agreed never to mention Vegas again. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, remember? It’s in the ad campaign and everything.”
I grunted. “It didn’t stay in Vegas or you wouldn’t be actin’ weird.”
The tires skidded across the asphalt as she yanked the truck to the side of the road. She pivoted in her seat and glared. “I’ve been avoidin’ you since Vegas and you’re just now noticin’? If you gave a crap about anything but yourself, you would’ve asked what was wrong months ago.” She angled her chin up, her eyes hardening. “This conversation is over.”
What? I didn’t pretend to understand women. Sure, I knew how to get their attention and keep it long enough to get them into my bed. But actually understand them and make a relationship last more than a few weeks? Nope.
Not knowing what to say to make peace, I shut my trap and waited for the storm to subside.
“Other than pet owners devoid of hearts, how’s the furry patient business doin’?” she asked after a long stretch of silence.
Did I really want to make small talk with Bailey when something was bothering her? Seemed better than the awkward tension sweeping the cab, and talking might make the trip pass quicker. “I’m lovin’ it. I especially like workin’ with horses. Tryin’ to decide between a surgery residency or settin’ up a practice and gettin’ straight to work.”
She cast me a skeptical glance. “Doesn’t your little starlet have guidance for you?”
“Abigail’s not my starlet.” I inwardly groaned, wanting to forget the existence of Abigail. “I met her at a dog park and gave her potty trainin’ tips for her puppy. That was it.”
Bailey clucked her tongue. “Pictures of you two kissin’ were plastered all over the internet.”
I cringed, remembering how hurt Abigail had been when I’d stopped calling. In my defense, I always warned girls of my bad dating record in advance. But they rarely listened. Each one believed they’d be the one to change me. Then when I broke things off, they were always shocked. Apparently, I hadn’t made my intentions clear enough with Abigail and in the end, she’d accused me of using her.
As much as I wanted to shift the blame to Abigail for not heeding my warning, she was right. I’d used her. I’d used them all. And I hated myself for making them feel weak or doubt themselves, like my parents had done to me. I didn’t want to be alone for the rest of my life but a happy or loving relationship wasn’t in my future. So I stole pleasure in bits and pieces when I could—and destroyed lives along the way. I sucked. If I had to be celibate the rest of my life, I vowed never to put another girl through that kind of pain. At the very least, I needed to avoid nice girls. “Haven’t seen her in a couple months.”
“She’s been rehomed, huh?” Bailey laughed once before covering her mouth and suppressing a giggle. “Saw that comin’.”
Why should I waste my time defending myself when Bailey had already tried and convicted me? Though I couldn’t blame her, the hostility was a bit much. She was either hormonal or more pissed off at me than I’d originally thought. This was going to be the longest drive ever.
Either way, she’d get over it. Eventually. Maybe after she saw me day after day over the upcoming weeks, she’d remember why we were friends and warm up.
My gaze drifted beyond the window at my side. As we left Austin behind and hit the main highway toward Bride and the B & B Ranch, the concrete sidewalks and buildings gave way to dirt, burnt orange leaves and tall yellowing grass.
Instinct told me to shut down like Bailey had—show her two could play at that game. But she wasn’t the type to be petty or sulk unnecessarily. Whatever I’d done to make her mad, being an even bigger jerk to her and playing mind games wouldn’t get me back in her good graces. I needed to behave. Unfortunately, proper behavior had never been one of my super powers. But Blake and his family had been my lifelines since I was ten years old.
For Bailey, I’d try harder.
When my parents had avoided our home to have extramarital affairs—too busy to deal with their wayward son—Mr. or Mrs. T picked me up from football practice. And they always had a place for me at the table. As an only child, I had loved being treated as part of their family, Blake and Bailey’s sibling. I’d done Big Brother duties with Blake, watched over Bailey when she went out with her friends and laid down the rules to her loser dates, chasing down any boys who disrespected her in any way.
I would always be connected to my biological mother and father, the little I could tolerate. But the Thayers were my true family. As much as I wanted to let Bailey work out her anger on her own, and as much as I didn’t want to talk about my feelings—or listen to any woman talk about hers—I really wanted to get back to normal with her.
“Whatever I did, Bails, I’m sorry. But I can’t fix it if you don’t tell me what’s going on.”
Her grip tightened on the steering wheel. “Forget it.”
Bailey’s attitude made forgetting about her anger kind of difficult. “Bails...”
She eased off the accelerator and sighed as the Silverado slowed. “I’m glad we got an annulment, Hunter, don’t get me wrong. People shouldn’t be allowed to get married when they’re that wasted.”
Dread smothered me—the last thing I wanted to revisit was that colossal mistake. I’d never been more wasted than that night. Except for flashes of images, I didn’t remember much. I could almost pretend it never happened. And the more often either of us were reminded of our drunken night in Vegas, or talked about it, the higher the risk Blake might find out. Granted, we hadn’t slept together—whew!—but we’d gone far enough to drive Blake to try to kick the crap out of me.
As much as I wanted to avoid the topic, I knew Bailey needed to get it all out so she could move on. “And?”
“The panic in your eyes and how quickly you filed the papers, like you couldn’t wait to get rid of me, didn’t do much for my ego. You were downright insulting.” She ground out the last word, shifting her attention to the stretch of road in the distance.
That’s what was eating at her? Piece of cake. “Are you kidding me? Blake is my best friend. We’ve been practically family forever. We had to reverse it quickly so Blake wouldn’t discover I’d violated his little sister in any way.” My gaze fell to her naked thighs.
A memory invaded my brain—Bailey lying under my weight, her frantic hands fumbling to take off my shirt as our mouths fused. A tingle ambushed my nether regions and horror filled me. I had to purge all memories of our Vegas adventure, forget it ever happened. I focused on the mile marker ahead, but another memory assaulted me... her heavy-lidded eyes and flushed face as she arched her neck.
Why was this haunting me now? We’d had a blast, drank too much, gotten married and I’d passed out before we’d consummated. The next morning while Bailey distracted Blake during breakfast, I’d started the annulment. They’d both returned to Bride and I’d flown back to Los Angeles. And I’d never allowed myself to think of that night again. Done and finished.
Bailey hadn’t replied and it had been more than a minute. “I was trying to save us both from Blake’s wrath. Why is that so bad?”
“It’s not.” She tilted her chin. “I don’t know why you’re still trying to explain. I’m over it.”
Yeah, right. She was over the Vegas fiasco like I was over her smokin’ legs and sexy-as-hell mouth. But since I didn’t know what else to say, I focused on the upcoming mile marker. Twenty more miles to Bride. It would feel like forty.
Spending the remaining drive in uncomfortable silence wasn’t what worried me though. I wasn’t sure how I’d survive the next few weeks living in the same house with her. First, because I didn’t know how to make things right. Second, because even as I vowed not to be attracted to her, I couldn’t help but be—all I had to do was look at any part of her. She wasn’t just more beautiful than I remembered. She was more confident. Sassier. Smarter.
Third, it was only a matter of time before Blake noticed something weird was going on between Bailey and me—and the reason. And then he’ll want to kill me.
I wasn’t over the Vegas disaster, not by a long shot.
Trying not to dwell on old wounds, I kept my attention on the road ahead and did my best to forget Hunter was sitting in the passenger seat. Not possible. But as my blood boiled, I knew Hunter didn’t try to hurt people. It just came naturally to him. His parents had created a monster, messed with his head and now his inner wiring was crossed and tangled.
I had watched his face every time they missed a game or when he’d shown up at our house because they were fighting. Any time my family tried to mediate between him and his parents, Hunter had bailed. Resolving things and bonding with his folks would mean making himself vulnerable. After the world of hurt they had inflicted on him, he was afraid to allow himself to truly love anyone.
Unfortunately, women got the brunt of that fear. As soon as a girl got serious, he’d dump her. Although Hunter frequently amazed me for turning out as good as he had, he was still a womanizing sack of horse manure. I’d always known the real Hunter and had fallen for him anyway. I had no one to blame but myself for my damaged ego. Still, his insensitivity and obliviousness toward me made my chest ache.
He hadn’t said another word since our little spat minutes ago, and as much as I wanted to believe he was trying to do as I’d asked, more likely he didn’t care. Any sadness I felt because he didn’t fight for me was quickly replaced by renewed fury because, once again, Hunter’s first concern was Hunter—with my mother and Blake tied for second place. I didn’t rate.
I reminded myself that he was basically a good guy and he tried to help others when he could—like returning to Bride to help my family.
“How’s the ranch doing?” he asked. “Is it much more difficult without Mr. Thayer?”
“Not as easy as it used to be. Between the medical bills and additional staff to cover Dad’s workload, my parents emptied their savings account. We sold off a few hundred acres and used the money to pay the last of Dad’s medical bills and then his funeral expenses.” My body wilted in the driver’s seat as the loss of my father hit me all over again. “We couldn’t risk having a bad week and not being able to pay our staff, so we laid off some of them. Which means the brunt of the work falls on Blake and me now.”
“You guys are catching up though, right?”
Asked the guy with the multimillion-dollar trust fund. For him, money came easy. He had no clue about profits and loss, balance sheets, taxes, insurance and the myriad things needed to breed horses of this caliber or train and sell them. He had no sense of the level of responsibility and determination it takes to run a successful ranch, had no idea how my family, our employees and so many others depended upon Blake and me for their survival. That kind of pressure carried a heavy weight.
“No, Hunter, we’re not.” I leaned forward, resting my forearm on the steering wheel to stretch my lower back, and wondered if I might have a day anytime soon without tired muscles. “We’re not pulling the profits Dad did. Mom handles the bookkeeping, orders supplies and various other things, but she’s always been too busy raising us and running the house to get involved in the inner workings of the ranch. Blake and I are learning, but we’re not there yet.”
“How can I help?”
“Your hands will be full doing Blake’s chores.” I moaned. “I have so much to accomplish over the next few weeks. Iesha and I have got to place in Tulsa World Finals.”
“I haven’t seen Iesha work cattle in a while. You really think she could beat the other cutters?”
“I do.” Hunter would be more aware of Iesha’s skills if he kept tabs on me at all. He would know Iesha already had several wins under her saddle and her winnings have been decent. Too bad all the money had gone to paying old bills. “Even if she only gets second or third place, we might be fine. If not, we have to sell an awful lot in stud fees or we won’t make the mortgage payment. We can’t keep selling land or we’ll be out of business with no place for the horses.”
Hunter scratched his scruffy chin. “You have some fantastic brood mares. If you breed all of them that you possibly can and sell the foals, wouldn’t you get a little extra?”
“Gestation period is eleven months, remember? We’ve got several foals, but they aren’t ready for sale. Some of them aren’t even weaned yet.” I sighed, not wanting to think about how much less money we had now and how much longer before I’d see a share of the ranch profits. How I would’ve loved a new dress or two. We could be paying on our debts for years before we’re able to funnel any of it back into savings. At least we always had wholesome food on the table, mama made certain of it. “We’re at the end of breeding season. I have about two weeks, three tops, to breed the last broodmare. Then my window is gone.”
“Serenity Ranch has some beautiful Arabians. I’m wondering if you could buy a couple of their older foals closer to training age. The sooner you can work with a horse and show its potential, the sooner you can make some money and pay off the debt. Right?”
I knew how it worked, geez. Had I not just spelled out our financial situation? I exhaled loudly as irritation crept up my spine and out through my mouth. “I’m confident Serenity has some great stock, but they don’t come cheap. We’re barely paying the help and feeding the horses as it is.”
As the highway lengthened behind my brother’s Silverado, the occasional building was replaced by fields, fences and cattle. Fall was my favorite time in Texas when the cedar elm’s glossy green leaves turned a glorious shade of orange and the late aster blooms exploded into lavender. But with Hunter sitting inches from me, drinking in all the beauty of autumn in Texas was much more difficult.
Hunter’s cluelessness about normal life hardships got me riled up too often. But I loved him anyway. When I’d waited for him at the airport curb and taken one look at his dark brown eyes, shaggy sun-streaked brown hair, those broad shoulders and muscular arms, butterflies fluttered in my stomach so hard, I’d become nauseous.
I hated being a slave to emotions and my body’s cravings. I didn’t want to love Hunter.
Hunter had always been almost too perfect. And he exuded confidence, making him seem more ruggedly sexy. Watching his biceps flex as he’d loaded his luggage into the back of the truck hadn’t helped suppress the longing igniting in the pit of my belly. Seeing his face soften and his eyes light up as he beamed at Muffin had nearly killed me with envy.
He would never look at me that way.
The dashboard clock read nine a.m. and after we passed the picturesque little town of Bride, we would have another five minutes before cruising into the driveway of the B & B ranch. My fingers twitched on the steering wheel. “Mind if we stop by Two Cups? I rushed to the airport this morning without getting my caffeine fix.”
“Sounds great. I’d love some coffee.” He stroked Muffin’s fur and I wished, for his sake, that one day he could lavish that level of tenderness on a human—even if it wasn’t me.