Bounty (Colorado Mountain #7)

By: Kristen Ashley

Acknowledgements and Author’s Note




Many thanks to my girl Stephanie Redman Smith for a lot of reasons, but as pertains to this book, moons ago she sent me a link to Hozier’s “Work Song.” Upon listening, I knew that song needed to be in a book. It fit perfectly here. I hope you’ll agree.

And much heartfelt thanks to Mark Ashley. I decided I was going to descend into the art of writing lyrics and we’ll just say I didn’t succeed all that well. But my Mark, he’s got a poet’s soul and the talent to make words sing. So he took my scary song that was supposed to say everything and made it into a thing of beauty. Thank you, honey!

Finally, as ever, I’d like to encourage readers to seek out and listen to the music I note in this novel. Especially this one as Justice is a singer-songwriter and she speaks a great deal through the words she sings. As I often suggest, and will do so again here, there will be scenes in this book that you’ll enjoy to the fullest if you listen to the songs they refer to while reading. And to make things easier for you, these songs include Linda Ronstadt’s “When Will I Be Loved” and “It’s So Easy,” Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” The Goo Goo Dolls “Come to Me,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” Hozier’s “Work Song” and the Zac Brown Band’s “Free.”

Enjoy!



*****





Prologue


The Only Man Here

Justice



“I’m not sure I wanna be saved, just sayin’.”

I looked at my friend Bianca. She had that glint in her eyes as she whispered this to me and Lacey before being led to the dancefloor by a biker.

This was not surprising. After three days at a local dude ranch, she was ready for a switch-up from cowboy to biker.

And the tall, angular biker who seemed determined to dance to “867-5309/Jenny” with Bianca was worth the not-so-coded message that we were on our own for the rest of the night and she’d fend for herself to get back to the ranch. This meaning she’d be doing it on the back of a bike likely sometime tomorrow morning.

I stopped watching Bianca head to the crowded dancefloor and looked to Lacey, our other friend, who had two bikers on her hook—both standing close, fencing her in at her stool at our table, taking turns buying her drinks, this having been going on for over an hour.

She wasn’t blotto, as most people would be after they’d imbibed as much as Lace had. She could hold her liquor, my Lacey. We all could. That’s what happened to dedicated party girls whose lives included nothing but bouncing from one righteous experience to the next, sucking all we could get out of it before we moved on.

Lace gave me a wink that indicated her approval of Bianca’s dance partner then turned back to her bikers.

I looked into the crowded bar, did a scan, saw one or two guys had eyes on me, but my glance slid through them.

Nothing had changed since the last scan.

This meaning nothing there.

Nothing at the dude ranch either, except I dug the horses. We’d ridden the trails. Learned how to lasso. Sat by a campfire. Had our massages and facials at the spa. Did the river rafting trip.

The cowboys were fine as they were intended to be considering how many single women were there for vacations and bachelorette getaways.

But, as I sat in that biker bar, watching the drinking, talking, dancing, biker-style flirting, general good-time-being-had-by-all, it came to me I was over it.

Not the dude ranch.

Not the biker scene.

I was just over it.

All of it.

And I was over it because I’d been on this course since I was born, in one way or another.

Sure, I’d never been to a dude ranch but I’d been to plenty of cowboy bars, and biker bars, and clubs in New York, LA, Chicago. Festivals in Nashville and Austin. On the back of some dude’s bike riding through Death Valley. In a private jet, flying to Boston just to have fresh lobster for dinner. Wandering around St. Ives on a ghost tour at midnight. Up in a treehouse in Oregon to meditate with a guru. Sitting at the side of a runway during fashion shows in Paris. On a yacht in the Mediterranean, on a speedboat in Tahoe, on a houseboat on Lake Powell, snorkeling emerald waters in northern Venezuela, partying on a beach in Thailand. Backstage at so many concerts, there was no way to count.

It was impossible in this life to run out of things to do.

But sitting in that bar in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, twenty-seven-years-old, it was hitting me that the buzz of life wasn’t vibrating as forcefully as it used to. In fact, it was beginning to seem a chore to pack up, head out, settle in (this being dropping my suitcases in whatever hotel room, cabin, boat, ship, treehouse, wherever we were staying) and rushing out to face the next adventure.

Truth be told, in the life I’d been born to, it was a testament to the love of my mother and father that it had taken this long. That I hadn’t started to feel jaded at around five. What people wanted from me, what they could use me for, how they could latch on, sink their teeth in, suck me dry.

This was why there was only Lace and Bianca for me. The others we’d scraped off.

We knew.

We were all hatched from different eggs but from the same species of chick. We got the life. It had been ingrained in us.

Legacies.

In the parental department, Bianca didn’t have it as good as Lacey and me did.

But no matter what, who came, who went, around the globe and back again (and again, and again) we had each other.

And sitting in that bar, I was coming to understand in all I’d done and seen (and don’t get me wrong, it all meant something to me, it just seemed to be meaning less and less), I only had two parents who hated each other tragically slightly more than they loved each other, but they loved me, and a brother who could be an ass more often than not…

And Lace and Bianca.

And sitting in that bar, I was coming to understand I wanted more.

I just had no idea what it was because if I wanted it, I could have anything.

Not to mention, the feeling was uncomfortable.

This was because I had it all.

Not like, if someone was outside looking in, they wouldn’t get what it was like to live my life and that it could be a downer.

It wasn’t a downer.

I actually had it all. And if I didn’t have it, I had the means to get it.

Having the feelings I was having, sitting at that bar, it made me feel ungrateful.

Because in coming to understand I wanted more, I was coming to understand that I actually wanted less.

I also, right then, needed to get out of there. Not cut Lacey and Bianca’s fun short by heading back to the ranch (which meant one or the other would come back with me). Not leaving them drinking and carousing without a wingman who could keep her eye on things.

Just a breath of fresh air, out of that heat, the crush, the loud music.

Just…out.

“Lace!” I shouted across the table and, being Lacey, even with two bikers on her hook, she turned to me immediately.

“Yo!” she shouted back.

“Need a breath of fresh air,” I yelled. “You good?”

She nodded. “Good, but want me to come with?”

Again, so Lace. She had two hot guys right there ready to make her every wish their command and she would ditch them to take a breather with me.

I shook my head. “No, babe. I’ll be okay.” I glanced up at the guys then back to her. “And I’ll be watching.”

Lacey gave me a big professionally-whitened-teeth smile. Even though I’d seen it frequently and the lighting wasn’t great in that bar, it still startled me like it always did. What with her smooth, milk chocolate skin (a perfect mix of goodness given to her by her Brazilian mom and African American dad), high cheekbones, shining black hair and almond-shaped tawny eyes.

She was the full package, petite, a lot of curves, a lot of hair, good genes from top to toe.

But even if her folks poured good into her since birth from the genes and then some, I still felt the abundance of beauty she had inside was all Lacey.

“I’ll be watching too,” she yelled back.

There it was, as ever. Proof of that beauty.

I gave her a short wave and slid off my stool.

Then, trying not to catch anyone’s eyes, I made my way through the crowded bar toward the hallway that led to the restrooms, kitchen and double doors that remained open to the outside for air flow. They also remained open because there was a big patio out there (with another bar) for the smokers and folks who wanted to have a conversation without shouting.

I turned that way and saw in the hallway were three tables. One was cluttered with plastic cups and bottles, clearly a set down point for people to drop their drinks so they could hit the dancefloor. The middle one had three girls and four bikers, by the looks of it from my experienced eye they were in the throes of getting-to-know-you in order to later get-to-know-you.

The last table, a little removed and shoved into a corner, was vacant.

I moved that way, head coming up to scan the area in case someone had the same intent and I had to hurry to cut them off at the pass.

And that was when I saw him.

There was a tall chain link fence outside, closing the customers in to the patio area.

He was straight on from the hallway, turned sideways, standing at that fence. He had a bottle of beer in his hand and a buddy who was shorter than him (in fact, smaller than him in every way, which it would seem at first glance anyone would be).

And he had his head thrown back because he was laughing.

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