Tuesday, October 23, 2018

For the love of ravens

I just finished reading The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens atthe Tower of London, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. You may know the legend – if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall. If you don’t, you’ll find out more about it in this book, along with folklore, history, and superstitions about ravens.
You’ll also learn about Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife, who is responsible for caring for the ravens. In The Ravenmaster, he tells us all about the birds, each with their own distinct personality, and their routines. What they eat, where they sleep, how they will steal your snacks, especially Pringles, how intelligent they are, their pecking order and social structure. His affection and respect for his charges show clearly. They have an inspiring partnership. Skaife is honest and funny. A really enjoyable book. 



Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A Constant Battle

by Cheryl Brooks

About two years ago, my new doctor recommended that I lose some weight. My liver enzymes had been elevated for a few years, which my previous doctor never seemed to notice. A CT of the abdomen for an unrelated problem had shown some fatty liver disease, which was the probable cause of the abnormal labs. He said only a few pounds would make a big difference, otherwise, I was looking at the possibility of developing cirrhosis of the liver, even without excessive alcohol intake. 

As it turned out, since the previous lab work was drawn (which were the results he was looking at), I had already lost about five pounds, mainly from working my ass off all summer. The results were still in the high end of normal, so he encouraged me to lose even more weight, and it didn't have to be a lot. Another five pounds would be enough.

Something in his manner suggested he didn't think I could do it.

He was wrong. I started on a diet (the Mediterranean diet minus sugar, bread, flour, pasta, potatoes, and rice) and exercise program, and I lost thirty pounds.

That was about a year and a half ago. Since then, fifteen pounds have crept back.

Why is that? I don't think I'm eating that much differently than I was before, although avoiding bread and sugar in the American diet is REALLY hard. Anyway, I kept trying, but to no avail. The stress of not losing made me binge, as did other stressors in my life--and there have been some doozies during that time. 

I've read various articles about how losing weight actually makes it easier for you to gain it back. With that in mind, the fact that I hadn't dieted in at least ten years--perhaps even longer--probably explained why I was able to lose those thirty pounds in the first place. At first, it was very encouraging. I was losing about a half a pound a day. With results like that, who would be tempted to stop?

But time, stress, and my love of all things related to cooking have taken their toll. Where I once weighed 190 lbs, I now weigh 205. Depressing, right?

You said it, sister. VERY depressing. I'm now looking at an appointment with said doctor later this month, a week after I go to Gatlinburg with a couple of buddies from my hospital days.

It's not going to be pretty.

I keep going over in my mind what I'll tell him, but it all boils down to this, which has been the story of my life: If I'd never tried to lose weight to begin with, I probably wouldn't be as heavy as I am today. Every diet has taken off twenty pounds and then saddled me with thirty more.

I'm not alone. I read somewhere that eighty to ninety-five percent of people who lose weight gain it back. Turns out there is an enzymatic feedback loop that causes this. I wish someone would figure out a way to block that enzyme for good without creating havoc in an already stressed body.

Hasn't happened yet. And being something of a stress eater, I have a feeling that I'll have gained even more by my appointment on the 24th.

Look out, Gatlinburg. You're about to be binged into oblivion.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Acts of Kindness


I’ve been thinking about kindness lately. Some days it seems in short supply in the world. So I googled “random acts of kindness” and made a list of some things that I will add to my repertoire to spread some kindness.

Send out encouragement. Maybe a heartening email to a friend or acquaintance. Maybe a positive comment on a website. Praise for a local business you patronize. Read an awesome book, article or blog post? Send a little love to the author.

Trash. I’ve wheeled my neighbor’s trash bins back from the curb when I did my own. Why not? I’m out there anyway. Picking up bits of refuse here and there and throwing them in a container is nice too.

Gratitude. It’s known to be good for you. What if you thanked someone at least once a week? Even wrote and sent thank you notes?

Giving. For example, animal shelters are always in need of supplies and can use your old towels and blankets. I have volunteered with the ASPCA and seen how their rescues enjoy a clean, cozy nest to cuddle into. Or you could leave a few quarters at the laundromat or on a parking meter. Buy an extra coffee when you get yours for someone who might need it.

Surprise. Leave a beautiful postcard or bookmark in a library book when you return it. A reader who likes the same kind of book you do will enjoy it.

You may know of or do other acts of kindness. I say there can never be too many.

Georgia O'Keefe's beautiful paintings are a kindness to the eye.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Excerpt from JUST THIS ONCE


He can’t have her.

So he moves in with her…
What could possibly go wrong?

As heir to a chain of luxury hotels, Sean Wyse III always gets what he wants. So when he sees a freeloading roommate taking advantage of his spunky best friend, Molly Brandt, he doesn’t hesitate to step in. He kicks out the roommate…and moves himself in. 

Molly loves quality time with Sean, but spending nights with him one wall away threatens to wake the crush she thought she’d gotten over. A crush Sean knows nothing about, which might be a problem…considering how hard Sean’s been working never to think of Molly that way.

***
Enjoy this excerpt from Just This Once!


Molly wanted him out of her apartment.
Sean had promised her brother he’d stay. 
And now his best friend had started playing dirty to get her way.
“Moll, don’t,” Sean warned through gritted teeth.
Instead of springing off him and retreating to her side of the couch the way he wanted, she cocked her head and looked down at him. “Something wrong, Sean?”
Her knees were on both sides of his hips, and his hands were balled against the cushion so they didn’t fist in the shorts covering her ass. Yeah, something was wrong. And it got even more so when she rested both her hands on his shoulders and sat back on his thighs. Because another inch and she’d be right there.
His molars ground together. He couldn’t think about it. About how close she was. About how it would feel to have her pressed against him like that.
Except he was totally thinking about it, and worse, he was thinking about it while he stared into those bright blue eyes.
And now there was less than an inch between him and Molly figuring out exactly what kind of victory she’d scored with this little stunt. If she knew, she’d do it again. She’d push further. And he’d let her, because as much as he didn’t want to, he liked this.
“You’re playing with fire, Molly. Enough.”
“Am I?” she asked, watching him like she wanted the one thing he knew better than to give her.
It wasn’t real. He knew it.
And even if it was, neither of them would ever act on it. Because Molly wasn’t disposable. She wasn’t someone he could take the edge off with and then walk away from like he did with all the other women. Not even if she kept looking at him the way she was right then.
Her lips parted, and the pink tip of her tongue peeked out to wet her bottom lip.
This was bad.
He could move her if he needed to. But then he’d have his hands on her hips, and what if he touched her thighs? What if he finally found out how it felt to have his fingers splayed wide across them, to feel how strong they were when they flexed? What would happen if his hands slid higher—
Her shriek cut through the fantasy that was rapidly spinning out of control.
“Sean!” she gasped, rising fast from where she’d been sitting back on his thighs, her hands clutching at his shoulders as she shifted in a panic from one knee to the other, which wasn’t helping the situation in the slightest, because all that shifting around while she was practically mashing her chest into his face was sending the wrong signals to a part of him that wasn’t very rational to begin with.
“Molly, stop!” he barked, capturing her hips with his hands and jerking his head back from a place that had been just the perfect amount of soft and sweet—and fuck, how was he going to keep that shit from following him into the shower?
Molly stopped her squirming and, safely out of his erection’s way, glowered down at him, her face a very satisfying shade of beet. “You… That… I… It…” She sucked in a breath and scrunched her eyes closed, apparently giving up on the completely unnecessary recap.
About time the tables turned here. He knew he shouldn’t be thinking about the fact that his thumbs had brushed those sexy hip bones of hers or that the way he was holding her, half suspended above him, was feeding the part of him that liked a little control.
Because this was Molly.
And clearly she’d gotten more than she bargained for.
“Yeah, you straddled my lap, Moll. I’m a guy. What the fuck did you think was going to happen?”
When she opened her eyes again, all that saucy confidence was gone, and a part of him missed it. But the greater part of him recognized the woman looking down at him as the best friend he wasn’t seeing enough of lately. The one who, despite all her hard edges and bluster, had a vulnerable side she didn’t trust to many people.
“Yeah, but…you’re you. And I didn’t think…” Her eyes cut away, and she blushed even harder. Christ, she was so uncomfortable, it was killing him. Even if she’d brought it on herself, he couldn’t watch her squirm. So he said the only thing he could think to make it better.
“Don’t freak out. It’s a physiological thing. Nothing else. You put any woman across my lap like that, and the man downstairs is going to get involved. It’s not about you.”
And shit, not only was that a lie, because it most definitely had been about her, but he also realized what a world-class dick thing it was to say. He opened his mouth to apologize and say he didn’t even know what—but she was nodding like that flimsy-ass explanation had actually made her feel better.
“Okay, so we’ll just forget about it then. Pretend it didn’t happen.”
He sure as hell was going to try, but he wasn’t holding his breath. Because for the first time in a dozen years, he knew exactly what Molly felt like above him. How soft and sweet those modest curves were against his cheek. How easily he could hold her. Guide her—yeah, forgetting about it wasn’t happening any time soon. But pretending? Sean was a master at maintaining a facade.
Only… “This shit stops now, Molly. Keep it up, and you’re going to start something we can’t just forget about and pretend didn’t happen. Is that what you want?”
Pinching her lips between her teeth, she shook her head.
“Me either,” he said, finally releasing his hold on her hips and helping her up. Probably something he should have done immediately. Definitely. “You mean too much to me.”

Monday, October 1, 2018

Excerpt from COULDN'T ASK FOR MORE


Fake engagements are a dangerous business.


Bryan James’s job is on thin ice unless he can secure a contract with a popular design house. He knows his best friend’s sister can help—but her terms are more than he bargained for.

Alexis Devers’s debut fashion line is a hit. But when Alexis’s publicist tells buyers that it landed her a wealthy, gorgeous fiancĂ©, Alexis needs to come up with one—fast. Bryan’s offer to strike a deal is perfectly timed. She’s more than willing—on one condition… 

It’s the perfect plan…until feelings start getting in the way. Suddenly, the dangers of mixing business and pleasure become much more real than either of them expected.

***
Enjoy this excerpt where Bryan and Alexis talk business, with a little flirting.


Taking a moment to compose himself, he followed her down the hall. He always gave himself something of a silent pep talk before a presentation, but that tradition was quickly quashed as his eyes landed on her shapely backside moving a few feet in front of him. There wasn’t much else he could do but take in her magnificent “rear view.”
He inhaled deeply, breathing in her scent. She smelled of citrus and flowers, clean and enticing. The confines of the hallway seemed to magnify the fragrance. The scent was familiar and comforting, like the refreshing scent that hung in the air after a spring rain. He smiled at the thought. He hadn’t spent much time with her yet. But being in her presence seemed to refresh him as well.
They entered her office, where the pastel theme continued. Instead of modern art, though, framed sketches were displayed on the walls of the space.
She gestured to the chair in front of her desk. “Have a seat.”
He did as she walked around to the other side of the desk to claim her own seat. Still admiring the sketches, he asked, “Did you do all of those?”
She nodded. “I did. Sydney, my partner, has some sketches up in her office as well.”
“They’re very impressive. You’re a talented designer.” Bryan’s eyes swept over the sketches once more before returning to her face. “You look skeptical.”
“You did come here to make a pitch, so…” She paused, gave a little shrug of her delicate shoulders. “Let’s just say I’m a little jaded.”
“Trust me. I wouldn’t have complimented you if I didn’t mean it.” He held her gaze a few beats, hoping his expression would communicate his seriousness. If they were in a different setting, he’d be complimenting more than just her skills as a designer.
A ghost of a smile lit her beautiful face. “Thank you.”
He slung the briefcase onto his lap, opening it. “I know you’ve got other things to do, so do you mind if I go ahead with my presentation?”
She shook her head. “I don’t mind. Go right ahead.”
He cleared his throat, loosened the Windsor knot in his tie. “Let me start by telling you that Royal Textiles is the largest, most efficient clothing textile manufacturer in the southeastern United States. What sets us apart from our competitors is our dedication to excellence.”
She nodded. “How so?”
“We don’t make rugs and curtains and tents. Our sole focus is on apparel manufacturing, and we put our absolute best into it. We have only the most state-of-the-art equipment and the most highly trained technicians working on our factory floor.” He handed over the materials he’d brought, two brochures and a full color booklet, for her to peruse. “You should also know that we’ve been honored for quality by both the American Council of Textile Production and the International Apparel Society.”
“I’m impressed.” She looked through the material, addressing him as her eyes scanned the glossy paper. Her expression was difficult to read. “Okay. So tell me about the most recent apparel line your company has acquired a production contract for.”
He straightened in his seat, holding eye contact with her. “We recently started manufacturing J. Cole’s denim line. The first pairs of jeans rolled off the line in the past two weeks.”
Her lips curved, and she appeared impressed. “Sounds good. There isn’t any denim in the Krystal Kouture One line.”
“I know. I’ve seen the designs.”
One perfectly shaped brow lifted. “And how is that? My partner only sent out promotional items to the retailers.”
“I have connections in retail. A friend of a friend let me take a look at your materials.” He leaned back, tenting his fingers. They’d reached the juncture of his pitch where he needed to appear casual but still show that he was serious about closing the deal. “Like I said, I think you have a lot of talent. As a textiles guy, I’m also mindful of how regional weather patterns can affect buyer expectations, especially in women’s wear. You have a good variety of pieces, and they’re sized right as well. I can see the appeal of your line for women all over the country.”
Closing the booklet, she set it aside. Lacing her graceful fingers, she placed her hands on the top of her desk. “I see you’ve done your homework. And I’m impressed with everything you’ve shown me.” She gestured to the stack of paper he’d given her.
A smile crossed his lips, and he clapped his hands together. Reaching into the open briefcase, he started to extract a preliminary agreement. “Wonderful. To get started, all I’ll need is for you to fill this out.”
She blinked a few times. “I’m sorry, I think you misunderstood me. I’m impressed, and everything looks good. But I have to take this up with my partner. I’m not going to make a decision, especially not one as major as this, without speaking to Sydney first.”
He tucked the agreement back inside, snapped the briefcase shut. “I understand completely.” Inside, he could feel the disappointment welling up inside him. He’d expected to win Alexis over with his brilliant presentation and return to the office with a signed agreement. Now, he’d have to go back empty-handed. While that wasn’t the outcome he’d hoped for, he did respect Alexis’s regard for her business partner. They were obviously a tightly knit unit, and he could see that reflected in Alexis’s manner and her words.
“We’ll get back to you with our decision by Monday at the latest.” She let her gaze travel over his upper body, then back to his eyes. “Is that acceptable?”
“That’s fine.” This time, his brow hitched. Was she just checking me out?

Friday, September 28, 2018

Wild on My Mind Excerpt


Love runs wild at the Sagebrush Flats Zoo,

where a motley crew of big-hearted animals 
helps the most unlikely couples find love.

When Katie Underwood discovers a litter of newborn cougar cubs, the last person she expects to come to the rescue is her former crush—and high school nemesis—Bowie Wilson. The worst part? He doesn’t seem to remember the trouble he caused her.

As a single father and owner of a cash-strapped zoo, Bowie struggles to balance budgets while raising his pre-teen daughter and a host of rascally animals. He considers himself lucky when Katie agrees to lend her talents to a publicity campaign in support of the zoo’s animal rehabilitation programs—until he learns just what she’s planning…

This time, Katie is determined to resist Bowie’s charm. But a lovelorn camel, a matchmaking honey badger, and a nursemaid capybara have different plans. Can they and the rest of the zoo’s menagerie help Bowie break through the barriers surrounding Katie’s heart?

Love can’t be tamed…



Enjoy this excerpt from Wild on My Mind!



She knew one thing for certain, though. After publicly humiliating her and effectively ending any chance of her dating anyone else in high school, Bowie Wilson had simply and utterly forgotten her.
“Uh, ma’am? Where exactly are we headed?”
Ma’am? Really? Although she supposed it was better than Katie Underwear.
“Up.”
“I see that, but where did the mother cougar leave her cubs?” The patience in Bowie’s tone irritated Katie even more. How dare he act like he was the rational one?
She whipped around to glare at him. Even in the harsh light of the LED lantern, Bowie was a handsome man.
“We’re headed to a cave,” she bit out.
Twelve years ago, Bowie could have doubled for a teenage heartthrob with the shock of jet-black hair that had always dangled over his piercing gray eyes. Now, with that hair neatly trimmed and a five-o’clock stubble dusting his jaw, he looked like a model posing for an outdoor magazine. As an immature youth, he’d pos­sessed a bad boy prettiness that appealed to girls—even self-proclaimed geeks like her. The years had toughened his features, hardening his male beauty into something more alluring and dangerous, even to a woman who should have known better.
Much better. Darn the man if he still didn’t have the capacity to make Katie’s hormones dance a happy little jig.
She steamed. If time hadn’t mattered, she might have taken them on a more difficult path. Even then, she doubted that it would have fazed Bowie. Despite never climbing on this particular rock face before, the man moved like a machine. She could just imagine his muscular forearm extending as he reached for the next hold. His bicep would flex as he hoisted his body…
Katie cursed at herself. Sometimes she found her vivid imagination more of a burden than a gift. It had certainly brought her more difficulties than successes.
Thankfully, they quickly arrived at the small cave. Katie started inside, but a warm hand rested on her shoulder. Even through the fabric of her T-shirt, she could feel Bowie’s heat and the strength of his fingers. An unbidden shiver slid through her.
“Let me go first.” Bowie’s breath caressed the sensitive skin on the back of Katie’s neck, and she had to fight to suppress another shudder. “The mother cougar may have returned.”
Bowie dropped to his knees and used the light from his headlamp to scan the cave before crawl­ing inside. With his larger frame, it took him a few seconds to wiggle through the narrow passage. As soon as Bowie moved far enough into the alcove for Katie to enter, she crawled over to the cubs. They moved clumsily about, searching for milk and their mother’s warmth. One yawned. Its tiny whis­kers flexed as it emitted a long squeak. The others followed suit. Katie’s heart squeezed. She resisted the urge to gather the little fluffs against her chest. She still didn’t know the protocol on handling kits this small, and she didn’t want to harm one inadvertently.
“Their eyes aren’t even open yet!” she said.
Bowie nodded. “Nor are their ears at this stage. They must be less than ten days old.” The awe in his voice caused Katie to turn sharply in his direction. He appeared just as infatuated with the cubs as she was. Was this the same man who’d once tied granny pant­ies to the undercarriage of her car along with the sign HONK IF YOU SEE MY UNDERWEAR?
Bowie reached for one of the mewling cubs and cradled it against his muscular chest. The little guy bur­rowed against him, and Katie’s hormones went crazy again. Just when she thought the scene couldn’t get any sweeter, the kit yawned, showing its miniature pink tongue. Then with one more nuzzle against Bowie’s pecs, it heaved a surprisingly large sigh as it fell asleep. Bowie’s handsome features softened into a gentle smile as he stroked the baby cougar’s spotted fur with one callused finger.
If Katie hadn’t suffered years of Bowie’s cruel teasing, she would have found herself halfway in love with him. He’d appeared to be the ideal boyfriend once before, but it had all been a veneer, the perfect trap for a geeky girl with silly dreams of romance. And Katie, the woman, would not fall prey to his outward charms again.
“Can I pick up one of the cougars too?” The cuteness of the cub would serve as a nice distraction from her unwanted feelings.
Bowie nodded. “They’ll need to be hand-reared, so they’re going to end up imprinting on humans anyway. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to rein­troduce them to the wild, but we can save them.”
Katie lifted one of the furry bundles, marveling at the softness of its fur. The little guy emitted a small, contented sound and immediately snuggled against Katie’s warmth. She could feel a cold, teeny nose against her skin as the cub rested its head in the crook of her arm. And right then and there, Katie fell in love. With the tiny kit. Definitely not with the man.
Although she hated putting the baby puma down, she knew the little trio needed more than just a warm cuddle. “Did you bring something to carry the cubs back down the mountain with?”
Bowie grimaced and shook his head. “I didn’t know the climb would be so steep.”
And, Katie realized, she hadn’t given him time to grab something from his truck either. To her sur­prise, Bowie was too polite to point that out.
“Do you want me to run back to the house to get a backpack?” she asked.
Bowie shook his head. “We’ll have to improvise. I’m not sure how long the cubs have been without milk, and we need to get them out of this cave as soon as possible.”
Katie scanned the dirt floor of the alcove and saw nothing—not even a twig. She turned back to ask Bowie what he planned on using and stopped. He was halfway out of his shirt. Normally, Katie wouldn’t blatantly ogle a man, but…those abs. And pecs. His biceps flexed as he ripped his shirt down the middle so it made one thick band. Bowie Wilson might be just as bad for Katie as an entire carton of rocky road ice cream, but he looked just as temptingly scrumptious.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Excerpt from Mistletoe In Texas!

He's always been the black sheep: the troublemaker.
But this Christmas, 
the prodigal cowboy returns.

Rodeo bullfighter Hank Brookman was headed straight for the top. But after a single misstep resulted in devastating injury, he disappeared under a mountain of regrets. Now he’s back, ready to face the loved ones he left behind—starting with the one girl his heart could never forget.

When Hank stormed out of Texas, he left Grace McKenna picking up the pieces…and struggling with a secret that changed everything. He may be back looking for redemption, but after everything they’ve been through, how can she admit what he really walked away from all those years ago?

Hank always knew persuading Grace to trust him again would be a tall order. But convincing her they deserve a happily ever after? That may take a Texas-sized Christmas miracle.

Enjoy this excerpt from Mistletoe In Texas!



Hank flipped his reins over Ranger’s head and stepped aboard, then kicked his foot out of the left stir­rup and held a hand out to Grace. “Get on.”
“What?”
Hank gave his hand an impatient shake. “Get on behind me.”
“I…don’t know how.”
“You’ve never ridden double?”
“Hey! Not all of us grew up on horseback.” Grace scowled at Ranger. Why did he have to be so tall? And climbing the horse would require her to practically climb Hank too, since she didn’t see anything else to grab on to. “You ride on the back. I’ll drive.”
“Fine.” Hank kept hold of the reins, but hitched him­self back to sit behind the cantle.
Okay. Good. But Grace still had to contend with the unfamiliar bulk of the chaps and bones that wanted to collapse into a shuddering pile. And she couldn’t see any way to swing her leg over the saddle without waving her butt under Hank’s nose. Again.
Ranger, bless his heart, stood stock-still as she grabbed the saddle horn, got her foot hoisted up and into the stirrup, and took a deep breath. So much for fantasies. Not one of her juvenile daydreams about Hank and this ranch had included getting dumped off her horse because of a damn pig.

***

He could have gotten her killed.
The tiny part of Hank’s brain still capable of logic argued that there was no way he could have known about the feral hog—when had those bastards moved this far north, and why hadn’t Cole told him?—but it was drowned by the echoes of that unearthly shriek. When Hank had seen Grace trying to drag herself up that bank…God, his heart had just disintegrated.
Distracted, he didn’t lean out of the way when Grace heaved herself into Ranger’s saddle, and the leg she’d intended to swing over the horse landed a roundhouse kick square to his rib cage.
“Shit!” He clamped his heels to keep from being knocked clean off, digging them into Ranger’s flanks. Startled, the bay gave a single, high kick that threw Grace up onto his neck. Hank caught a fistful of her coat with one hand and the reins with the other before Ranger could bolt. The gelding danced in a circle as they teetered, a tangle of arms, legs, and curses.
“I…can’t…breathe,” Grace gasped.
No wonder. The saddle horn was digging into her belly, and Hank had her pinned in place. He started to slide off, but Grace squeaked when she was dragged with him.
Hank stopped. Damn. The toe of her boot was hooked in the pocket of his coat. He hitched his hips back to the center of Ranger’s rump and took stock. He had a fingernail grip on the reins, his cheek was mashed up against Grace’s butt, and even Ranger wasn’t going to tolerate this much longer.
She had a double-fisted, white-knuckled grip on Ranger’s mane, so Hank let go of her coat and reached down to grab her ankle, prying it out of his pocket and letting it drop so she had a leg on either side of the horse. Better. Now if he could just get himself straightened out…
“’Scuse me,” he said as he planted his palm on her left butt cheek and pushed himself upright. She stiffened but didn’t try to kick him. “Scoot back,” he said.
She wiggled. Grunted. Wiggled some more. Hank got hold of the back strap of her chaps and pulled. She didn’t budge.
Her words came in short puffs. “I’m…stuck. Front of my…chaps. Over…the horn.”
Oh. Shit. That was not good. Hung up like that, if Ranger did bolt, her head would end up between his front feet. Hank slid off the side, thankfully keeping his feet under him. Ranger shied a step, his eyes roll­ing toward the woman who was draped over his neck, clinging like a monkey. Her coat was rucked up to her armpits, and the brim of her hat had been shoved around so the earflap covered her eyes and tufts of curly hair stuck out every which way.
A wild bubble of laughter swelled in Hank’s throat. He swallowed hard. There was no time for hysterics. He eased the rein over the horse’s head and unclipped one end, then put a calming hand on Ranger’s shoulder while he tried to figure out how to get Grace loose.
Damn. No matter what angle he studied it from, there appeared to be only one option. “I have to lift you up and over the horn, then catch you before you hit the ground.”
“Okay.”
“I’m going to have to grab you by the crotch.”
“Oh.” Her hips twitched, as if in protest, but she said, “Well, uh, male cheerleaders do that all the time, right? No big deal.”
Yeah. That sounded convincing. He shucked his gloves, wrapped the end of the rein around his hand, and stepped so close that her face was buried in the curve of his neck. “Hang on to my shoulders.”
She untangled her fingers from Ranger’s mane and latched on to Hank. Her breath was hot against his skin, and he both felt and heard her soft eek! as he slid his hand, palm up, between her thigh and the saddle.
“Ready?” he asked.
Her chin dug into his shoulder as she nodded. Before either of them had time to think about exactly what he was grabbing, he slid his hand to the center, hoisted her hips up, and then pulled forward.
She dropped like a rock, her weight slamming into his chest. He went down hard on his butt, then his back, Grace sprawled on top of him. Ranger shied, but Hank kept his grip on the rein. The horse stopped, snorting and wide-eyed as he stared down at them.
Hank let his head flop back and his arms splay, spread-eagled in the dirt, limp with relief. He’d done it. She was safe.
Then Grace started to shake, tremors that rocked her body as she made a choked, hiccupping sound. Oh shit. She was crying. Was she hurt? Scared half to death? Fixing to slam a knee into the same part of his anatomy as he’d just—
Her laughter burst out, ringing in his ears and echo­ing off the sides of the ravine. “Oh…my…God!” she gasped. “That was so ridiculous. If anyone had seen—”
She broke off, quaking against him, and the vibration broke something loose.
This wasn’t funny, dammit. Except it was, especially when he lifted his head to see her blindfolded by her cock-eyed hat, hair sticking out every which way and giggling her fool head off.
A deep, uncontrollable belly laugh rocked him. And the harder he laughed, the harder Grace laughed, and then Mabel started jumping and yipping around them, eager to join the fun, and they laughed even harder, helpless to fend her off when her tongue swiped at their faces.
Meanwhile, the horse continued to stare down at them as if they’d lost their ever-loving minds.