Series: Cowboy SEALs Series #3
Genre: Contemporary Western Romance
Release Date: August 2, 2021
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Austin “Reaper” O’ Brien has a deadly skillset sharpened to perfection by sixteen years as a sniper for the Navy SEALs. After the difficult choice to leave the military, he makes the slow transition into the civilian world working on a south Texas cattle ranch. A quiet man made more so by the nature of his lethal profession, he suffers in silence from the loss of his infant son and his wife’s suicide.
Courtney Byrd, a third-grade teacher suffering from her own grief, sees something in the handsome, reticent man in a cowboy hat who asks her to dance at the Barbwire Bar in town. But since her ex-husband tore her heart to shreds, she’s vowed to keep men at arm’s distance. That doesn’t mean she won’t allow herself to enjoy a night or two with a sexy guy.
But when Reaper’s and Courtney’s relationship grows into more than a spicy hookup, will they fight to overcome their demons or will they choose to be alone with their heartaches?
Austin O’Brien, known as Reaper to his SEAL brothers, stopped outside the Barbwire Bar, listening to the country music blaring from inside. Was he ready for this? Clouds had rolled in this evening, and there was a chance of rain overnight. No wonder his leg, injured from an up-close encounter with an IED, was aching like an SOB. Sighing, he followed the cowboy who had just opened the door. At least being with Slade and Tina would keep at bay the memories that struck when he was alone.
He strolled to the bar and ordered a beer, then scanned around for his friends, finding them at a long table near the dance floor entrance. He headed that way as Slade, his best friend and a former SEAL, gave his wife Tina a tender kiss. A hollow formed in the pit of Reaper’s stomach and he gritted his teeth. Enough of this maudlin bullshit! As he approached, he noticed a glass at the end of the table where he always sat so that he could make an early getaway. Damn. Instead, he took a seat across from his friends.
Slade reached for his hand. “Glad you made it, bro.” Tina smiled at Reaper in welcome.
The rowdy song the band had been playing ended.
“Said I’d be here.” Reaper shook with Slade. The last thing he’d wanted to do was be at the Barbwire tonight. However, he’d come because they were counting on him, and one thing he never did was let a friend down.
A moment later, a gorgeous blonde arrived at the table accompanied by a tall, good-looking cowboy. He pulled her chair back for her, and she thanked him.
Tina raised her voice over the noise of the next song, “Reaper, this is my good friend, Courtney Byrd.” When the blonde turned to look at him, Tina said, “Courtney, this is Austin O’Brien. Everybody calls him Reaper. He was in the SEALs with Slade and Flint.”
Courtney reached out her hand. “Good to meet you, Austin.”
For some reason he liked it that this beautiful woman called him Austin. It squared with her wholesome, girl-next-door aura. Her makeup was flawless, yet understated. If her blonde hair was out of a bottle, he sure couldn’t tell. And those jeans! They fit her hourglass figure perfectly but weren’t so tight that they revealed too much. She was sexy as hell without shouting it to every man in the room.
“The pleasure is all mine.” He shook her hand. Her grip was surprisingly firm. He instantly liked her for that.
She took a long drink from her glass, nearly emptying it. When she put it down, she glanced at him with a grin. “Dancing’s hot work, don’t you think?”
She was cute. “Let me get you another. What’s your pleasure?”
“Thank you. A screwdriver, please.”
On Saturdays, finding a waitress when you wanted one was never easy, so he left for the bar. His damn leg throbbed. He’d walked fence all day, looking for stretched or broken strands, but he refused to limp. When he returned to the table, Tina and Courtney were carrying on an animated conversation. He set Courtney’s glass in front of her and took a seat.
She stopped mid-sentence and smiled. “Thanks, Austin. I appreciate it. I’ll get your next beer.”
He frowned. “No need for that.”
She gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “I insist.”
Goose bumps raced to his shoulder, and a longing for something he couldn’t put a name to overwhelmed him. He looked down at his beer, turning it round and round, searching inside himself for an answer to this strangeness.
Flint and Morgan arrived at the table, and the ex-SEAL gave Reaper a slap on the back. “Good to see you out and about, bro.”
Reaper nodded. “Thank Tina. I hear she would have hit me if I’d said no.”
Flint laughed and helped Morgan with her chair.
She patted Reaper’s arm. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in over a week.”
He shrugged. “Fine. How’s Violet?” His friends were respectful of his loss five years prior and sometimes felt uncomfortable talking about their daughter around him, so he made an effort to ask about Violet often.
Morgan rolled her eyes. “A handful.” She leaned her head toward Reaper and asked, “Do you see my gray hairs?”
“This light’s bad.” He grinned.
“Well, if I don’t have any, I should. That little girl of mine gives me a run for my money.”
A slow song started, and the tall cowboy came back and asked Courtney to dance. As she stood to accept, a wave of irritation swept through Reaper. He squeezed his eyes shut. What the hell is going on with me? After taking the last swig of his beer, he headed to the bar. The woman could dance with whomever she wanted. Keeping his back to the dance floor, he drank where he stood until the song ended.
As he took his seat at the table again, Courtney returned, the cowboy at her side. The guy reached for her hand. “Why don’t you join me and my friend at our table?”
Reaper’s pulse picked up speed, and he pressed his lips into a hard line. Who was this jerk?
Courtney answered with a smile. “Thanks for asking, Tony, but I’m with my friends tonight.”
Reaper let out a breath and took a drink of his beer.
Tony pulled back Courtney’s chair for her, then left.
Reaper watched the cowboy’s retreat through narrowed eyes.
When a good dancing song began a couple of minutes later, he surprised himself by asking, “Courtney, would you like to dance?”
“I’d love to.” Her deep-blue eyes sparkled.
He kept his hand protectively at her back as he escorted her to the dance floor. He liked the fact that she was tall for a woman. She must be at least five feet eight or so. He disliked having to scrunch down to kiss. Crap! Why was he thinking of kissing?
He pulled her into his arms at the edge of the floor. When she looked into his eyes and smiled, his stomach gave a little flutter. What the hell was going on with him tonight? He’d barely met this woman, and yet he felt incredibly drawn to her.
Tina had taught him the Texas two-step the last time Slade had dragged him out dancing at the Barbwire. Courtney followed his lead flawlessly. He relaxed and enjoyed the feel of her in his arms, ignoring the pain in his leg. She was worth every damn twinge.
When the dance was over, he didn’t want to let go of her hand. She didn’t seem to mind, so he held onto her all the way back to the table. Before she sat down, she squeezed his fingers. “Thanks, Austin. I had fun.”
“No, thank you. You made me look good out there.” Catching the waitress’s eye, he bought a round for the table.
Courtney leaned toward him, and said over the noise of the band, “Isn’t this music great? I love this band.”
He nodded. “They’re good. Easy to dance to. Do they come here often?”
The sound grew louder and she put her lips to his ear, sending a shiver through him. “I’ve been here several times when they’ve played. So they’re kind of regulars, I guess.”
A slow song began, and Tony headed toward their table. Reaper shot the cowboy a hard stare and said to Courtney, “May I have this dance?”
The light from the dance floor shone on her long blonde curls. “You may.”
Taking her soft hand in his again, he led her to the floor. As he held her in his arms, she laid her head on his chest. The sensation took him by storm. He suddenly wanted her more than he’d wanted a woman in a very long time, and he didn’t understand it. What was it about her that called to him so? This feeling wasn’t that raw, lustful passion that had come over him sometimes when he was on leave. It was something totally different. He wanted to hold her, protect her. Love her. He kissed the top of her head, surprising himself.
She drew back and met his gaze, searching his face. Then the corner of her mouth tilted up, and she laid her head against him again.
He put his arm around her as they walked back to the table, and she leaned into him. His mind was spinning. He was unsure what was happening to him, but he didn’t want it to stop.
In spite of the nagging pain in his leg, he danced with Courtney throughout the evening. Each time he had to release her from his arms, it was like letting go of something precious.
They held hands under the table, and he could tell that she needed the connection as much as he did. As the night wound down, he began to feel almost desperate. He leaned over and said in her ear, “I don’t want this night to end.”
She met his gaze. “Take me home, Austin.”
His heart pounded, and he pulled her to him. “I’d love that.” Then he paused. “Do you care if everyone sees us leaving together?”
She shrugged. “I can never keep anything from Tina anyway. Let’s go.”
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