Date Published: Jul 2013
“Excuse me, but aren’t you supposed to be naked?”
Beauregard Cates pushed up his Stetson and squinted at the middle-aged woman who stood in the pool of light from the street lamp. She wore one of those touristy t-shirts that vendors hawked on every corner and a bright orange visor that would work real well on an elk hunt. She did seem to be hunting for something. Beau just wasn’t quite sure for what. He’d been propositioned before—more times than he could count—just not when the woman’s husband stood right next to her. A husband who looked as interested in the answer to the question as his wife seemed to be.
“Maybe you have to pay him to take his clothes off.” The man held up his digital camera and clicked off a few pictures, the flash momentarily blinding Beau. “Hell, we’ve had to pay for everything else in this friggin’ town.”
The woman shot her husband an annoyed look before holding out her hand. “Give me a twenty, Marty. Joan got a picture with The Naked Cowboy, and I’m not leaving New York City until I get one.”
It looked as if Marty might argue, but then he stuffed the camera into the bag hooked over his shoulder and pulled his wallet from the back pocket of his high-waisted, khaki shorts. “I swear, Laurie,” he grumbled. “You’d buy a dog turd if that crazy neighbor of ours brought one back from vacation.”
Not denying it, his wife snatched the twenty out of his hand and waved it at Beau. “And could you hurry? We want to get to the Empire State Building before it closes.”
Beau had done a lot of crazy things in his life, and regretted very few, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to stand in his underwear in the middle of Central Park while a tourist snapped pictures that would no doubt end up on Facebook. And after the incident in New Zealand, Beau’s mama had threatened to yank a knot in his tail if he ever ended up naked on the Internet again. But before he could decline the offer, the woman that he had been following came out of the bathroom.
Except she didn’t look like the same woman who’d gone in. The ponytailed blond hair had been tucked beneath a sleek black wig, and her waitressing outfit had been exchanged for a tiny white top and a skirt that showed off a good ninety percent of her mile-long legs. Not that Beau was a leg man. He was breast fed and proud of it. Still, he couldn’t help but enjoy the toned calves and smooth thighs. But it wasn’t her legs that gave the woman’s disguise away. It was the determined tilt of her chin—and the “Think-Green” tote bag slung over her shoulder.
He tried to remember the name he’d been given. Janine? Jennifer?
A thump pulled his attention away from his thoughts, and he turned in time to see Marty rubbing his chest above the thick black strap of his camera bag.
“What?” He glared at his wife. “You’re going to get a picture with some naked guy, and I can’t even sneak a peek at a street walker.”
“She’s not The Naked Cowboy,” Laurie huffed.
“About that picture,” Beau said as he uncrossed his boots and rolled up from the park bench, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to give you a rain check.” His gaze returned to the woman in the black wig who appeared to be having a hard time walking in her sky-high heels. As she headed down the path toward Central Park South, she wobbled more than Beau’s one-year-old nephew, Bobby.
“A rain check?” Laurie sounded thoroughly disappointed. “But we’re only here until Monday.”
Beau turned to her and pinned on his most brilliant smile. A smile that had gotten him out of more bad situations than he could count. “I’ll tell you what. Since you’re going to be here this weekend, what about if I leave you a couple tickets for the bull-riding competition at the ticket window of Madison Square Garden?” He glanced over at Marty. “Then you can take dozens of pictures of different cowboys—a few who won’t mind at all getting naked for you.”
“You ride bulls?” Marty asked.
Marty perked up. “No kiddin’? I didn’t figure you for a real cowboy. I just figured that you ran around naked in a hat and boots for the money.”
“All part of the illusion that’s New York City.” Beau tipped his hat at them. “Y’all enjoy your vacation now.”
It didn’t take him long to catch up with the woman. She moved a lot slower in the heels than she had in the black running shoes she’d worn when she came out of the restaurant. More than a few times, she stopped to catch her balance and adjust the straps of the shoes. Pointy-heeled shoes that made her legs look twice as long.
As he slowed his pace to keep a few yards behind her, Beau had to admit he was a little confused. Why would a waitress walk to Central Park and change clothes in the bathroom? If she was meeting friends after work, why hadn’t she changed at the restaurant? Or why hadn’t she just gone home like any normal person would’ve done after working all day on their feet? It would’ve made Beau’s job a lot simpler. If she had gone home, he would now have her address and would be on his way back to his hotel to cuddle up with the sweet little stock contractor he’d met that afternoon. Not only did Peggy Sue own some damned fine bulls, she filled out her western shirt to mouth-watering proportions.
The thought of Peggy Sue and her abundant twins had Beau tiring of his detective work. He hadn’t minded sitting in the bar across the street from the restaurant, shooting the shit with the bartender and eating a double cheeseburger, while he waited for “a tall, skinny gal with blond hair down to her butt” to get off work. But he wasn’t about to spend the rest of the night playing Dick Tracy when he had a better offer waiting for him back at the hotel. He had promised that he would get the woman’s address, and he would, just not at the expense of his sex life. Especially when his sex life wasn’t exactly going as well as he would like.
Of course, it was nothing to worry about. Just a little hitch in his giddy-up. A hitch Peggy Sue just might be able to help him with.
On that thought, Beau started to turn around when the waitress suddenly veered off the main path and headed into the thicker foliage.
Well, damn. He didn’t know a lot about Central Park, but he didn’t think that any park was safe for a lone woman to be wandering around at night. So he mentally said goodbye to Peggy Sue and headed into the trees. The trail was narrow and much darker than the paved path. In fact, he couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of him. The waitress was nowhere in sight. He started to get concerned when a tree branch popped out and struck him in the chest. He stumbled back just as something hit him in the calves, knocking his feet out from under him and sending him to the ground. His shoulder hit first. The same shoulder he’d dislocated a few months earlier while kite surfing in Belize. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he rolled to his back and glared up at the woman who stood over him. From this position, her legs looked like they extended all the way up to the quarter moon that hung in the dark sky.
“Why are you followin’ me?” she asked, her Texas twang twice as thick as the stick she poked in his chest. No doubt, the same stick that had his calves throbbing. “Did Alejandro send you to scare me? Well, it’s not going to work.” She pointed the stick at his nose. “Now you listen and listen carefully, you go back to your boss and tell him that I’m not going to be intimidated. Especially not by some old, gray-haired cowboy who can’t even fend off a girl.”
Tossing the stick away, she adjusted her tote bag and wobbled back down the trail.
Beau lay there for a few minutes, staring up at the stars.
Old, gray-haired cowboy?
He sat up and rubbed his shoulder. It hurt like a sonofabitch, but it was nothing compared to his wounded pride. Not that he had anything to be ashamed of. The woman had caught him off guard, is all. Or not a woman as much as some kind of freakish mutant that was a cross between Gwyneth Paltrow and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
It took awhile to locate his Stetson. He slapped it against his leg and placed it back on his head. He walked down the trail with every intention of hailing a cab and heading straight to the hotel and Peggy Sue. As far as he was concerned, his detective days were over. But when he reached the paved path, he couldn’t help glancing in both directions.
He didn’t see the waitress, but a group of kids raced by, four boys in baggy shorts and flip-flops. One passed off a handful of firecrackers to the kid who ran next to him. Beau grinned. Having grown up with four brothers, he knew how much fun firecrackers could be. And how much trouble they could get you into.
Beau’s brow knotted. Speaking of trouble, what kind of trouble was the waitress involved in? Who was this Alejandro? And why would he send someone to intimidate a woman? Her aggressive behavior was more than a little annoying, but that didn’t give a man the right to bully her. And maybe that was why she’d been so hostile. She was scared.
The thought had Beau turning in the same direction the waitress had been headed. As he walked, he tried to remember her name.
Joyce? Jeanette? No, it was two j names. Jilly June? Jeannie Joy?
Before he could think of her name, he found her. She stood by one of the horse-drawn carriages that were parked next to the curb, talking with a driver who wore one of those ridiculous top hats. Or not talking as much as flirting. She was laying it on thick, giggling and touching the man’s arm.
Maybe Marty was right. Maybe the woman did a little street walking on the side to supplement her waitressing income. It made sense considering the disguise and revealing clothing—and who she was related to.
Beau probably should’ve left her to her business. It didn’t look like the woman was in any kind of imminent danger. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to leave until he was sure. He walked around the back of the line of carriages and slipped up on the other side. As he drew closer, he could hear the waitress talking.
“ . . . hope you don’t mind if I get a picture of you to show all my friends back home,” she said in a voice with no twang whatsoever, “but you’re just so cute. And I bet you have to be strong to handle a horse that big.”
Beau peeked around the side of the carriage at the man’s skinny arms and figured the woman could whip the driver’s ass with one hand tied behind her back.
“Well, draft horses are pretty hard to handle,” the driver’s voice beamed with pride. “And Lightning is as stubborn as they come. If he doesn’t watch himself, he won’t be pulling a carriage for much longer.”
“Really?” She held the camera higher. If she was taking pictures, she was doing it through video. The green record light was on. “What happens to stubborn horses when they can no longer pull a carriage?”
“They usually find themselves—” The driver stopped and pointed a finger at the camera. “Hey, don’t I know you? You’re the blonde that was here last week asking questions and taking pictures.” He stepped closer, his voice angry. “You almost lost me my job when my boss saw that video on YouTube.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The woman started to back away, but the driver grabbed her arm and pulled off her wig. The blond ponytail spilled out.
“You don’t, huh?” He dropped the wig and made a grab for the phone. “Hand over the phone, blondie.”
Beau had seen about as much manhandling as he could take. Opening the door of the carriage, he climbed in with the intent of climbing out the other side and helping to even the odds. But before he could do more than open the opposite door, Blondie proved him right. The driver was no match for the skinny girl. She threw an elbow-shot into the man’s stomach that had Beau sucking in his breath. The driver released her, but before she could make a run for it, a swarm of other carriage drivers came running. With all exits blocked, most people would’ve given up. Blondie wasn’t even fazed. She vaulted up into the driver’s seat of the carriage, took the reins, and shouted a deep-throated “hah!”
Beau braced to be thrown on his ass.
Instead, nothing happened.
“Hah!” Blondie continued to slap the reins. But the only movement it generated from Lightning was a flick of his tail.
Her shoulders drooped, and Beau figured she was about to accept defeat when the four boys in baggy shorts raced past. The scent of burning fuses warned Beau, but not quick enough. The staccato pops of firecrackers went off right next to the horse’s front hooves. The draft horse reared, and Beau was thrown back against the seat. By the time he sat up, the horse was at a full run. Carefully, Beau made his way to the driver’s seat. Blondie wasn’t quite as sassy anymore. She had lost the reins and hung on to the side rail for dear life.
Without any guidance, the horse chose his own path. Fortunately for the pedestrians, it was a less populated route. Unfortunately for Beau and Blondie, it wasn’t really a route.
Shrubs and low-hanging branches wacked them in the faces and scratched their arms as the horse charged down a narrow trail. Figuring that the back was safer than the front, Beau lifted the woman off the seat and pulled her down to the cushioned red leather. It didn’t surprise him that she wasn’t exactly happy about being protected. She fought worse than a lassoed steer. Still, after being bested earlier, Beau wasn’t about to let her get the upper hand again. And since he didn’t want to hurt her, it turned into something of a wrestling match.
The woman knew her moves. She tried headlocks, cradles, and Half Nelsons. But Beau hadn’t wrestled in high school for nothing. After only a few moments, he ended up on top with her legs pinned beneath him and her arms held over her head.
The fight fizzled out of her just as the carriage came to a stop. Beau’s hat had come off, and his face was inches from hers. So close, he could see the freckles that sprinkled the bridge of her nose. So close, he could see the starbursts of deep blue in her irises. Her hair had come out of the ponytail and framed her face in long, wheat-colored waves. He had always preferred dark-haired girls, but the cloud of gold looked so soft that he couldn’t help leaning down to rub his cheek against the silky strands. A scent drifted up. A scent he had no trouble distinguishing.
Homemade cherry pie piping hot from the oven.
Suddenly, Beau was hungry.
And not for food.
Like a lightning bolt straight from heaven, desire sizzled through him and settled in a hard knot beneath the fly of his jeans. The unexpected sensation had him pulling back in surprise, and the spitfire didn’t waste any time taking advantage of the opportunity. She gave him a hard shove and rolled out from beneath him. Still stunned, he could only watch as she grabbed her tote bag and jumped down from the carriage.
The slamming door brought Beau out of his daze, and his gaze moved down to the hardened swell beneath his zipper. A smile spread across his face. Not the smile he gave to most folks, but a real smile that came directly from the relief that flooded his body.
Up ahead, he could see the woman hobbling down the path in only one high heel, her golden hair glistening in the moonlight. After an entire night’s contemplation, a name popped into his head.