Tina Leonard
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author

Last of the Red Hot Heroes

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Chapter One

It was time to make his move.

As far as Declan O’Rourke was concerned, it was way past time to make his move on blond and kick-ass Harper Castleberry. He’d been patient, waiting for the single mother to send a signal that she might be ready for something more than the just-friends relationship they had.

But as he watched her training the new Hell Belles recruits, he knew running the turtle-slow and cautious race hadn’t netted him the trophy. It was a hot, sunny day in June, the horses were kicking up their heels and playful in the training center pasture, and the Hell parade would celebrate its third year in October.

Which might mean nothing to the lay person who hadn’t visited Hell, but to Declan it meant almost three years Harper had been here, and almost three years he’d been sitting on the fence mooning after her.

His buddies and co-owners of the Hell’s Outlaws Training Center, Trace Carter and Saint Markham, had said that being a hero was going to bring him nothing but heartbreak, and though he usually took their advice with a generous dose of salt, they were married, and he wasn’t even close to being kissed.

In fact, Harper barely seemed to notice he was alive. All her attention was on the team she’d taken over from Mayor Judy Jasper, slowly turning it from a bullfighting team into a trick riding team. Just as dangerous, in some ways, and he missed the old focus on bulls. Bulls he understood. This business of slinging oneself around a horse and doing what he called circus tricks left him exhausted.

Someone was going to get hurt.

Trace and Saint and he had resisted training Judy’s team to be bullfighters, their hearts too involved to want to see Ava Buchanan, now Trace’s wife, or Cameron Dix, Saint’s wife, get stomped.

But there was something about this trick riding that really blew his mind.

Worse, it brought his evil twin, Fallon, to the Training Center to watch Harper train. Fallon said he was just hanging around to watch the show, as he considered himself an ace trick rider himself.

Fallon wasn’t fooling him. He might be a damn good rider, but Fallon also had a thing for Harper.

Yet even that wasn’t the worst part.

Lately, Declan had noticed Dr. Jack Turner hanging around the Training Center, too, conveniently during the hours that Harper trained the team. Everybody loved the soft-hearted vet. Declan liked him, too. Jack was a good man, ran a good outfit where animals were treated well and sent home cured of their ailments. Jack was tireless in his care of big and small creatures.

He’d be perfect for Harper. The man would make a great dad for six-year-old Michael, who was in first grade over in Hawk where there was an elementary school, unlike Hell. Through the Hell grapevine-Judy and her sheriff, Steel Durant, not to mention Trace and Saint-he’d heard that Jack had driven Michael over to school a couple of times when Harper had competition conflicts with her team.

That was when Declan had realized that the cautious man-himself-the man who’d been crawling toward a relationship for three years with gutsy and sexy Harper Castleberry, was going to find himself late out of the chute.

Another suitor had been playing the same game, apparently, making his move before Declan had. Cozying up, getting close to the small duo of mother and child. Big Jack-the closest thing to Johnny Cash Declan figured he’d ever see-had always been sweet on Hattie Hawthorne who owned the Rolling Thunder Café. Maybe Jack had gotten tired of waiting for the beautiful Hattie to notice his heart belonged to her and decided to move on.

Declan’s heart clutched at the thought.

“Your brother hangs out here a lot,” Harper said, coming over to where he was stuck to the fence like a giant buzzard doing nothing but gawking at his prey. Or at least that’s what he felt like, and damn it, he was tired of feeling like an opportunistic buzzard.

“I know.” He tried to keep the sour tone from his voice, failed. “You can run him off any time you like.”

She smiled. “I figure that’s your job. Don’t you and the other Outlaws usually keep the bad, bad gang of Horsemen off your territory?”

He was doing his best to keep every other male out of his territory, without a whole lot of success.

“Harper,” he said suddenly, “you and I have been friends a while.”

“I know.” She looked at him. “You and the other Outlaws are great. Thanks for letting me train my team here.”

He nodded, feeling his Adam’s Apple jump around in his throat. “Let’s go out some time.”

She stared at him in silence for a minute, her big eyes surprised. No one was more surprised than he was. He tried not to stare at her pretty full lips, nor her pulled-back golden-blonde hair that usually brushed her shoulders in a smooth fall of sunshine, nor her delicious body. His heart thundered as he waited for her reply.

“Go out? As in, a date?”

“Well, maybe not a date, exactly,” he hedged, then told himself to quit being a candyass. Sitting on the fence wasn’t getting him anywhere, and heroes were heroes because they acted. “Yeah, okay, a date.”

She laughed. “I’m not trying to ask you out, Declan.”

He moved his straw Resistol back on his head. “Yeah, I’m probably trying to ask you out, though.”

Her tiny nose wrinkled slightly as she obviously tried not to laugh. “Where is this coming from?”

“What?” he asked, shooting for innocent. “Where’s what coming from?”

“Hey, Declan! Dumbass!” Fallon yelled across the arena. “Why aren’t you riding?”

He glanced toward his twin. “Shut the hell up, Fallon. There’s training going on, and last I checked, you’re not part of the team.”

“That answers that question.” Harper looked over at Fallon. “He’s here to cause trouble. Just like always.”

Their rivals, the Horsemen, consisting of Jake Masters, Rebel Wright, Buck St. John, and Declan’s twin Fallon, were pros at creating havoc of one kind or another. Declan couldn’t understand why his brother had chosen the dark side of Hell, when there was so much good in the town of around two hundred, give or take a day when anyone might at any time decide to go off on a holy grail, or finally decide Hell wasn’t the place for a man. It was mostly men in Hell, and it was a bit rough, Declan freely admitted. There weren’t a lot of amusements or soft female companionship, unless you went to Ivy Peters’ Honky-tonk and Dive Bar on the outskirts of town.

And then there were the Hell Belles, Mayor Judy’s Big Idea for smoothing out the testosterone level in Hell.

So far it was working-for everyone but him.

“Brother, if you spent more time working, and less time asking Harper out, you’d probably be able to keep this joint in the black!” Fallon yelled.

Harper turned her gaze on Declan. “He’s standing real close to the drain pipe over there. The girls have had a lot of fun with the sound traveling across the arena, and Fallon probably heard about the weird acoustic trick this place has.” She looked at Declan, studying him while he suffered, realizing that his brother had heard every word of their conversation, and decided to broadcast it to everyone in the arena. The Hell Belles stopped, staring their way, curious. Anyone who’d crawled out from under a rock in the past three years knew that Harper Castleberry wasn’t a dating kind of girl. She had her son, and she had her team, and that was all she wanted.

Declan grimaced as Trace and Saint came out of the office, their faces wreathed in unholy delight that his dismal attempt at romancing Harper had just flamed to the ground. “I think I’ll cut this awkwardness short and head off.”

She smiled. “Probably a good idea.”

“Loser!” Fallon hollered.

Giggles from the Hell Belles definitely didn’t help. New to town, Winter Baxter, Cassidy Kent, and Micaela Caraway didn’t know all the backstory, but they’d been filled in enough in the past two weeks to recognize baiting when they heard it.

“‘Bye, Declan.” Harper marched back across the arena, kept on going until she reached Fallon. Declan watched as she said something to his twin, who slunk off after a few minutes, throwing a glare his way.

“So very unfortunate, bro.” Saint came to stand beside him, pounded him on the back. “All this time spent waiting for the right moment, then picking a megaphone for your seduction.”

“Smooth,” Trace agreed, and his SEAL brothers laughed with devilish glee.

He supposed he had this coming. He’d certainly enjoyed their downfalls at the hands of females, although to be fair, he’d also been a bit envious, wishing a downfall might come his way, too. Unlike his brothers, who’d wanted nothing more upon returning home from Afghanistan than to dig into business and avoid the stress of the matrimonial altar, Declan wanted to settle down.

With Harper. And little Michael. Perhaps a dog to round out their family.

Maybe even a child of their own one day.

Boy, am I dreaming.

Trace slapped him on the back so jovially Declan hoped his lungs were still intact. “If you can get her to the altar this June, it’d be nice. I’ve got money riding on it.”

“It’s June now,” Declan said. “I’d have to drag her off to a cave and romance her boots off to make that happen in three weeks.”

“I’ve got money riding on July,” Saint said. “Two big-big ones.”

“You bet two thousand dollars on whether or not Harper and I would get married?” Declan asked incredulously, then realized everything in the arena had gone totally still.

He turned, saw the look of astonished dismay on Harper’s face, who was still standing by the drainpipe where Fallon had been when she’d dismissed him.

She’d heard every word.

Saint and Trace snickered, heading back into the office with huge guffaws, congratulating themselves.

Damn his brothers. Just like old times, they’d set him up.

As he’d done to them, on many occasions.

Judging by Harper’s reaction, his sudden and perhaps poorly-timed request for a date couldn’t be any more awkward. That much was clear as she turned away, obviously intending to ignore what she’d overheard. He supposed he was lucky she hadn’t come over to give him the same treatment she’d just given his twin, sending him off with his tail between his legs.

But she wasn’t looking his way with a shy smile of invitation, either.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Declan’s ranch house wasn’t far from Trace’s place-now Ava’s and Trace’s, along with their brand-new baby Wyatt, and Saint’s and Cameron’s home-but his was more of a spread. Set on five acres and a bit farther out from town, Declan enjoyed the peace and quiet of shrouded live oak trees and a few scattered willows, a fish pond, a couple of barns, and a swimming pool, complete with heated spa. It was the kind of place he’d dreamed about when he was overseas, and he’d saved diligently toward this goal. He had five horses he kept here, not at the Hell’s Outlaws Training Center. These were yard ornaments, in truth, beauty he wanted just to look at, and not train, not seriously, anyway. He rode them, kept them exercised, but mostly the five spotted rescue horses he’d kept from getting shipped to Mexico were his contribution to a more beautiful world.

He was twenty-nine now, enjoying the fruits of his labors-all except the fruit he wanted, and which he couldn’t have, that being Harper, not that one should think about women and forbidden fruit together, he supposed. He lay on a lounge chair, staring at a beach ball floating in the pool, knowing full well he should be working, not sitting here nursing his ego.

This morning had been really damaging to his male pride. Between his twin and his true brothers, the ones he should have been able to count on having his back, he’d gotten a right Hell roasting. But it had been the look of shock on Harper’s face that had really knocked him for a loop. She’d looked plain stunned, and what woman wouldn’t be, upon hearing herself the focus of matrimonial bets in Hell?

It sucked, it really did. Even the cold longneck he’d allowed himself wasn’t helping. Nothing was going to help. Right about now, everyone would be gathered in the old black, cracked leather booth at Redfeather’s, enjoying Stephen Redfeather’s mystery meals, the camaraderie of good friends, and sussing over the day’s events.

Redfeather’s was the last place he wanted to be. He couldn’t face his SEAL brothers, not with them currently enjoying his misery. He didn’t want to face Sheriff Steel and Mayor Judy, although those two were certainly no poster couple for how-to-do-romance-right.

Then it hit him, as he stared at the two bright green floating chairs in his pool, that the black circular booth days were over, at least for their gang as it had been. Once Harper had taken over Mayor Judy’s team of Hell Belles, Harper had brought on the new recruits, and she and the new team sat in a different booth than the regulars. It was next to theirs, but he couldn’t watch her over the high backs of the booths. Stealing peeks at her over the dinner table was how he’d passed three years without revealing his infatuation with her.

Of course infatuation was putting it quite mildly, in fact, dressing his emotions down quite a bit. He was in love with Harper, had been from almost the day she’d brightened Hell with her beauty and her smile and her sexy backside, a blinding package that took his breath away.

She was smart and she was brave, and she was perfect for taking over Judy’s team, which had foundered a bit under Judy in the past few months. Judy had given up the reins unwillingly, forced to basically by a vote of no confidence from the original team members.

This had pretty much shaken the rafters of Hell. Judy losing her team hadn’t been a pretty thing, but the Outlaws had endorsed Harper shepherding a new team, with new goals. Guaranteed pay scale, too, with some benefits-none of this airy-fairy maybe-you’ll-get-paid-maybe-you-won’t stuff which he’d been astonished to learn had existed under Judy’s tutelage.

It had all come to a boil when Judy’d had a health scare and been gone a couple of months. He and Trace and Saint had been shocked to learn that the Hell Belles had no income during this time. When Cameron Dix’s truck tires were stolen, the story spilled out, and that’s when Harper had decided the team needed a new leader, electing to become the Hell Belles’ new madam of mayhem.

Sighing, he sucked on his beer. Pondered grabbing another one, decided to remain on his chaise hiding out from the world. It was an unfortunate turn of phrase to think of Harper as a madam of mayhem, when that title should rightfully go to Ivy Peters across town, who owned Ivy Peters’ Honky-tonk and Dive Bar, a place of ill repute and to which he’d heard the new girls were drawn to like kids to cake.

That was going to end badly.

But not everything ended badly in Hell. If Trace and Saint could settle down with the loves of their lives, surely he could manage the same?

“Declan!”

He sat up, glancing around for the female voice calling his name. “Over here!”

To his astonishment, Harper walked in through the wood gate that surrounded the pool, setting it off from the rest of his property, keeping it safe for horses and other creatures. Like a vision he’d somehow conjured, she strolled toward him wearing blue jean shorts, a tight pink top, and white sneakers with no backs. Her blond hair was in a high ponytail, setting off her cheekbones-but his gaze returned immediately to the long, long legs coming his way.

He hopped up, suddenly charged with energy. “What are you doing here?”

She stopped a few feet away from him. “Thought I’d come find you. The guys said you’d put yourself in time-out.”

“Time-out?” He frowned. “That’s for kids.”

She nodded. “Kids who’ve done something bad.”

He caught a tiny sliver of flat tummy between the shorts and the tight top, swallowed hard. “I’m not a child.”

“I know. But you know your brothers. They are, despite Ava’s and Cameron’s best efforts to change them.”

This was truer than even she knew. “Can I get you a beer? Soda?”

“I’d love a glass of wine.”

Wine. Jeez, did he have any? “Let’s go dig around in my fridge, see what we can unearth.” It was very possible that all that was in there was water bottles, beer, some leftover takeout of unknown date from Stephen’s.

“That’s all right. I’ll just have water.”

“Take a seat. The view is great. I’ll be right back.”

The view certainly was great now that she’d walked into his backyard. How he’d rated a visit he wasn’t certain, but he sensed a little tension in her usually friendly smile. Declan rooted around in his backstock, finding a bottle of chardonnay left over from some function last year which Judy had sent home with him.

“I have wine. And it’s chilled.” He could barely take his gaze from her as he sat on the chaise next to hers. “Left over from Judy’s Christmas gathering, but it’s still the juice of the grape.”

She smiled. “To Hell.”

Indeed. He raised his beer in a likewise toasting motion and gulped it down for fortification.

The view had definitely improved.

“Declan,” Harper said, sounding uncomfortable, “about today-“

“I know. Awkward as hell. I’m sorry about that. You of all people know the Outlaws can’t stop at a little joke, they have to go for the big applause.”

She nodded. “I do know that. I totally understand. But I want to clear the air between you and me.”

He felt a shootdown coming on. Of course he deserved it, he should have squashed his fellow SEALs the instant they’d started running their mouths. “It’s clear. Clean and clear as a bell.”

Harper gave him a long look.

“I’m not sure it can be that clear.”

“You have nothing to worry about from me, I swear.” He nodded vigorously. “They just want everyone to share their misery now that they’ve tied themselves down.”

“Do you think they’re miserable?”

“They swore they were confirmed bachelors and then changed their minds. Now they’re not going to be happy until they see me at the altar of Hell.” He shook his head. “That didn’t sound right. What I meant was, until they see me married, just like them.”

“I can’t really see you settling down.”

“Nor can I.” He raised his beer in another toast. “To freedom.”

After a moment, she raised her wine glass. “To freedom.”

That was that. He felt good about it. His words felt like a vow, a promise, even, that she had nothing to worry about from him.

And he meant it. He got the whole scenario: She was a single mother, she’d had Michael when she was around twenty-two. She wasn’t eager for a father figure in Michael’s life. And she’d just taken over Judy’s team, was raising up the new generation of Hell Belles, a better version than their mayor had managed.

To top it all off, Harper had never looked his way.

Oh, he totally understood what had brought her out here this summery late afternoon. He told himself to take a deep breath, chill. The sun was beginning its slow descent over his grove of trees, he could see his beautiful equine yard ornaments sheltering under some pecan trees, enjoying the slight breezes. It was so restful here, so peaceful, everything he’d ever wanted after the Navy-so no one was more surprised than he when he leaned over and kissed Harper right on her heart-shaped lips, stealing what he darn well knew was the only kiss he’d ever get from the blond everyone said was Judy’s last chance to bullfight and raise Hell.

Oh, God, her mouth was sweeter and softer than he’d ever dreamed, and she didn’t move away, didn’t slap his ears inside his skull. In fact, it seemed to Declan that she drew a little closer, almost seeking his mouth hungrily. Taste for taste.

He was dying.

Declan pulled away, staring into her beautiful eyes that were green as the trees around them.

“I swear you’re safe from me.”

“You’re safe from me, too.”

She got up and walked away, leaving him with an eyeball full of sweet, sexy ass, long, delicious legs, and a hard-on that wasn’t about to quit any time soon.

Of course he’d been fibbing, to the both of them.

Harper wasn’t safe from him at all.

And he’d played it safe long enough.