Desiree Holt | USA Today & Award-Winning Author

Bare Naked

Naked Cowboys, Book 4

Georgie Zielinski has invested everything she owns in a dilapidated B&B in Saddle Wells, Texas. She doesn’t have anything left over to hire someone to help her get the place back to its former glory, so when a rough-around-the-edges cowboy offers his handyman services, she listens to her gut and takes him on.

Cade Hannigan was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it’s long since tarnished, and he’s a down-on-his-luck cowboy if there ever was one. All he has now is his beat-up truck and a reputation so bad no one will hire him. Luckily for Cade, newcomer Georgie doesn’t know anything about the man he used to be, and she accepts his help in exchange for room and board.

As they work together on the old B&B, they start to build a tenuous friendship that soon explodes into wild passion. But not everyone is ready to give Cade a second chance, and their newfound happiness could disappear like smoke.

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Chapter One

“Cade, I’ll give you one more chance here.”

Ed Ramsey, owner of the Lone Star Bar, stared at Cade Hannigan. Cade stared right back at him, wishing the man would say his piece so he could hide in his room with the two six-packs he’d managed to filch. Lately, it seemed the only way he could get to sleep at night was to drink himself into oblivion. The pittance he got from the saloon for cleaning up in the morning barely covered what he drank at night. So what if he helped himself to some extra now and then?

He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his feet, waiting for Ed to spit out what was on his mind.

“What now?” he asked.

“I’m short on the bottles of beer again,” Ed said, his tone flat. “We’ve had this discussion before.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Cade fisted his hands in his pockets. “So blame the bum, right?”

“I’d be a little more concerned if I were you.” The bar owner studied him, his gaze sliding over Cade’s skin like sharp glass. “I’m about the only one left willing to give you a job and a place to crash.”

And isn’t that just the damn fucking truth.

Cade wanted to kick something. A year ago, he’d been on top of the world, waving an open checkbook wherever he went, crushing people who annoyed or irritated him. People hung around him because he was Cade Hannigan. The name meant power and money. Now, thanks to his late father’s gambling, it was all gone. People who’d kissed his ass wouldn’t cross the street to kick dirt on him. Or reach out a hand to help him. He was reduced to sleeping in a crappy little room over the Lone Star Bar and cleaning up for scum wages. So what if he copped a six-pack or two now and then? Didn’t he deserve something to cushion his miserable existence?

“Cade?” Bob Everett prompted him.

“I hear you. Don’t worry. I won’t steal your crappy beer.” At least not more than I already have. “Can I go now?”

“As long as you remember what I said. And I’m cutting you back to two drinks. Just so you know.”

“Thanks for your generosity,” Cade growled.

“Listen, you asshole. No one else will even let you drink in their place. So go crawl into your corner, swallow your booze and get the hell out before you scare away the customers.”

Cade pushed his way out of the back room into the bar. Under Ed’s eagle eye, he poured himself a double shot of bourbon and carried it to his usual table in the corner. It was still early in the evening so there weren’t too many people in the bar yet. He hunched over his drink, his jacket collar turned up. If he could make himself invisible he would.

Sometimes he made the drinks last as long as possible. After all, where did he have to go except the rat hole he was living in? Other times, when he got tired of people looking at him with equal parts of pity and scorn, he scarfed the alcohol down and got the hell out of there.

Tonight, the place was only about half full and no one seemed to be paying particular attention to him, so he could enjoy his own private pity party. Damn his old man for putting him in this bind anyway. The Hannigans had owned the biggest ranch in this part of Texas and had extensive real estate holdings. Private plane. Big parties. People bowing and scraping. Then his father dropped dead of a heart attack and Cade discovered the old man had gambled away just about everything and the entire estate had to be liquidated to satisfy creditors. He’d been completely humiliated. Not to mention the fact his friends had suddenly disappeared.

No money, no friendship.

He had just carried his second drink back to his table when the outside door opened and the atmosphere was filled with the sound of feminine voices and laughter. Cade glanced up and wanted to crawl under the table. It was hard to miss the musical laugh of Amy Stark. Oh, wait. Not Stark any more. What was it? Yeah, Montgomery.

Son of a bitch.

Once she’d been Cade’s girlfriend. All his. And he’d made sure everyone knew it. He could still remember the feel of her body against his and the heat of her kisses. And the very public breakup when she caught him with another woman.

Damn small-minded of her. What did a stray piece of ass matter, anyway?

Now she was married to someone else and wouldn’t give him the time of day. He still smarted from the confrontation with her asshole husband. Who the hell did that interloper think he was, anyway?

He knew the other women with her too. Reenie Stark was married to Amy’s brother and Jinx Malone, the publisher of the county newspaper, was engaged to marry Sheriff Dillon Cross. They were all laughing about something and acting as if they owned the damn place.

Not too long ago, I could have owned the damn place. And the whole county. Come to think of it, we nearly did.

He forgot for a moment that he needed to nurse the two stingy drinks Ed allowed him and downed a healthy slug. The liquor burned on its way down his throat, but the warmth as it flooded through his system helped to take the edge off his bitterness.

Glancing at the women again, he watched them take a table in the middle of the room and wave at Ed behind the bar.

“The usual,” Amy called, tossing her dark hair.

“Coming right up, sweet cheeks,” Ed told her. “You sure you girls are old enough to drink?”

That set them off in another fit of laughter.

Didn’t Ed just think he was so fucking funny?

Cade ground his teeth and took another sip of his whiskey. Why the fuck did they have to come in here? There were other bars in town where they could hang out. This was his place. At least for a couple of hours a night. The only place that didn’t throw him out as soon as he walked in the door.

He huddled deeper into his corner, wondering how in hell he was going to get out of here without being seen by them. He hoped they didn’t look his way. Maybe he’d just toss down the rest of his allotted alcohol, find a way to inch out of here and lock himself in upstairs with the last six-pack he’d snuck out of the bar when Ed wasn’t looking. There’d be hell to pay when Ed did his inventory again, but it wouldn’t be the first time the two of them had gone a round. And who else was the man going to get to sweep up the place for the pittance Cade received, anyway?

“Amy.” Reenie leaned across the table.

Amy looked at her friend. “What is it? And why are you whispering at me?”

“Ssh. Don’t look, but I think that’s Cade Hannigan in a heap in the corner.” As Amy turned her head, Reenie grabbed her arm. “No, no, no. I said don’t look.”

Too late. Amy had already glanced over her shoulder. At first, she didn’t recognize the heap of clothing in the corner as a person. All she could make out was a sheepskin-lined ranch jacket and a disreputable Stetson. For a moment, it looked as if Ed had dropped stuff on the chair for some reason. Then she saw a hand move and a big knot formed in her stomach.

Amy hadn’t seen Cade since his big fall from grace, although she’d heard enough about it from her brother and Buck. And Jinx had covered the scandal in the newspaper in great detail. She wanted to feel sorry for him, but the way he’d humiliated her and then his arrogant almost threatening attitude afterwards shut down any sympathy she might feel.

“Ignore him,” she told the others. “Maybe Ed will toss him out with the trash.”

“I understand Ed gave him the room over the bar to crash in,” Jinx said, “and he pays him a few bucks to sweep up in the morning.”

“And here’s Ed with our drinks, so let’s talk about something pleasant.” She winked at Ed as he poured beer into three glasses and set the pitcher on the table. “It did our egos good when you carded us before, Ed. But I’d say we’re old enough to drink.” She winked at him.” Depends on how much trouble we get into.”

“Trouble?” he chuckled. “Not in here. I have your husbands—” he pointed at Amy and Reenie, “—and your fiancé—” he looked at Jinx “—on speed dial. Who’s driving tonight?”

Jinx raised her hand. “I am. Well, sort of. Buck dropped us off at the movie theater and we walked over here. Dillon’s on pickup-and-delivery duty when we’re finished.”

Ed shook his head. “I can’t imagine why you want to spend your evening in this old place. Don’t you have anything to drink at home?”

“But then we wouldn’t have you,” Reenie said.

They all looked at each other and burst out laughing again. Ed just shook his head and walked away back to the bar where some strays who’d wandered in were waiting for service. The women were still busy with their conversation and jokes when the outside door opened again, letting in cold air and a tall blonde. She headed directly to the bar where she gave Ed her order. Then, unbuttoning her jacket, she looked around as if trying to decide where to sit before finally settling at the table next to where the women were sitting.

“Do either of you know her?” Amy asked. “Jinx, you know just about everyone in the county.”

Jinx squinted. “I’ve seen her around town but haven’t had a chance to meet her. Let’s ask her to join us.”

“I will.” Amy set her glass aside. “I love meeting new people.”

“Our very own welcome wagon,” Jinx teased.

Amy slid her chair back from the table so she could be closer to the stranger. “Hi there. I’m Amy Montgomery. My friends and I are bent on destroying Ed’s place tonight and wondered if you’d like to join us?”

The blonde stared at her. “But you don’t even know me.”

Amy shrugged. “Not yet I don’t. But if you let us buy you a beer we can fix that.”

“Wait a minute.” Jinx snapped her fingers. “Weren’t you in the hardware store the other day? Buying an unholy amount of paint and some other stuff.”

The blonde looked surprised. “Why yes, I was.”

“Planning a big construction job?”

“She’s the publisher of the newspaper,” Amy explained. “Gives her an excuse to be nosy. I’m Amy Montgomery.” She nodded at the other two women. “My sister-in-law, Reenie Stark. And our nosy publisher, Jinx Malone. Soon-to-be Cross.”

“Excuse me?” The woman frowned. “Cross? About what? Am I missing something?”

“Oh.” Amy grinned. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it to come out that way. That she’s cross, I mean. She’s engaged to our sheriff, Dillon Cross.”

“Have some more beer, Amy,” Jinx teased.

“Jinx, I know you from your picture in the newspaper,” the blonde said. “Plus it’s hard to miss you. You’re pretty well known around town.”

“That’s me,” Jinx laughed. “I think more notorious than famous, though.”

“Georgie Zielinski.” The blonde gave all of them a tentative smile.” I bought the old abandoned B&B on East Meadow Road.”

“Really?” Amy’s eyes widened. “Ohmigod. How fabulous. We heard it had finally been sold but no details.”

“Yeah. I bought it from the estate.” Georgie frowned. “It’s been vacant for years, I understand.” She snorted a laugh. “Shows it too.”

Amy hitched her chair around so Georgie could slide hers into the space she made.

“So what brought you here to Saddle Wells to buy that money pit? Not that we aren’t all grateful someone is bringing the place to life again. But hey, we’re not exactly on the beaten path here.”

Georgie took a healthy swallow of her drink. “You want the long or the short version?”

“Whatever one you want to give us,” Reenie told her.

“Yes,” Amy added. “Whatever you’re most comfortable sharing. We don’t want to chase you away.”

Georgie heaved a sigh. “The short story is I left the big-city hotel industry. Stressful job. Too much of everything. I wanted something that was all mine, and opening my own bed and breakfast is my dream. Why here?” She shrugged and then smiled. “Nothing against Saddle Wells, but this place turned out to be the only one I could afford to buy. However—” she held up one finger while she took another swig of beer, “—call me cautiously optimistic, but I checked all the demographics. You have good tourist traffic through here. So I’m sure I can make it work.”

At least I hope I can. Otherwise I’m out on my ass in the cold.

Georgie took another sip of her beer, cautioning herself not to just slug it down. The last thing she needed after meeting new people was to get falling-down drunk. Especially in a town where she expected to run a business. If luck was on her side, that is.

How lucky was it that she’d decided to stop in here on her way home for a quick drink? She never hung out in bars, but today had been particularly stressful, talking to the bank, ordering more supplies, dipping again into her carefully guarded stash. For dinner, she grabbed a hamburger that she’d eaten while making more notes in her ever-present work notebook. She’d just felt the need for a little something to take the edge off, and she didn’t even have a small bottle of wine at home. She knew too many women who fell into the trap of solitary drinking.

Excitement threaded through her as she sat here with these women. She knew who they were, of course, even before they’d told her. They were very visible in the small town of Saddle Wells, and she envied them their close friendship. As she’d scrabbled to build her career there hadn’t been time to make friends. And the women she’d come in contact with had made their disdain very obvious.

Maybe I was meant to end up here after all.

“Is the place even habitable?” Amy wanted to know.

“Enough for now. I have running water and electricity, a kitchen that’s old but sort of works and one usable bathroom. The rest will come in time.”

“Sounds like a money pit.” Reenie took a healthy swallow of her beer. “Do you have a secret sugar daddy?”

“Jesus, Reenie.” Amy frowned at her sister-in-law. “Why don’t you just let it all hang out there?”

“Oh.” Reenie giggled. “Sorry. Beer makes my jaw flap. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“It’s okay,” Georgie assured her. “But no, no sugar daddy. A healthy savings stash, plus when I…left my job I cashed in a fat 401K.”

Jinx studied her, interest flashing in her eyes. “That must have been some job you walked away from.”

You don’t know the half of it.

“A story for another day.”

“So do you have anyone helping you with this?” Reenie asked and then grinned. “You might need an entire construction crew from what the rumors say.”

No kidding.

“Not yet I haven’t. I made a long list of things that need to be done. I can work on most of the inside stuff myself, but I’m almost afraid to get an estimate on the tougher work.”

“We can put you in touch with people,” Reenie told her. “Matt, my husband, knows everyone in the county. He’ll make sure to send you honest people.”

People? Not like she could afford a crew.

“I appreciate that. Thank you. But at the moment I think if I could find one reliable handyman who could do a bunch of stuff I’d be in good shape.”

“You should let me write about this,” Jinx said. “And we can take before and after pictures.”

“You can certainly get plenty of before pictures now,” Georgie grinned. “But having a small article so people can look forward to it would really be great.”

And keep me from changing my mind. Especially since I have no other options.

But she’d keep all that to herself. These women seemed very nice, but she’d only just gotten to know them. She wasn’t about to spill her messy story and lose their friendship before she really had it.

“An article it is and before shots.” Jinx took her phone out of her purse. “How about giving me your cell number. I’ll call you next week. Maybe we can have lunch together.”

“That would be great.” Georgie tapped in her numbers.

“Maybe we can all have lunch together,” Amy suggested. “I can use a break from computers any time.”

Georgie cocked her head. “Computers?”

“She’s a ranch business manager,” Reenie put in. “The best there is. She keeps all the books and records for Stark Ranch plus for the one she and her husband, Buck, own. Amy, I swear, I don’t know how you do it.”

“The same way you handle all your graphics clients. Hey, maybe you could do a web site and some stuff for Georgie.” Amy turned in her chair. “Reenie runs her own graphic design business from Stark Ranch. She could do an incredible job for you.”

Georgie had the feeling a snowball was rolling over her. “Well, um, that’s great. I don’t think I’ve gotten that far yet, though.”

“Let the poor woman catch her breath.” Jinx laughed. “We’re liable to send her screaming into the night.”

“We only want to help,” Reenie protested. She leaned forward. “We tend to get a little overenthusiastic. You let us know whenever you’re ready.”

Georgie shook her head, a bewildered expression on her face. “Are you this friendly with everyone? Don’t you worry about strangers here?”

Amy shrugged. “We like to think we’re good judges of character.” She made a face and slid a glance to the figure huddled in the corner. “Past history aside.”

Reenie reached over and touched Amy’s arm. “Don’t let him spoil the night. You’re the winner now.”

Georgie frowned. “Did I miss something?”

“Only the local drunk. Nobody to worry about.”

But Jinx leaned forward in a conspiratorial move. “That man in the corner? He and his family used to own most of the county. They treated people like shit. One day, Amy can tell you her story if she wants.”

Georgie looked over at the man Jinx mentioned. “So why is he in here drinking in a corner and looking like he’s on his last dime?”

“Because he is. His father gambled everything away and now he’s barely got two cents in his pocket. And Ed’s the only one in town who’ll put up with him.”

“Why do I think there’s a lot more to the story than that?” Georgie asked.

“Not one you want to hear,” Amy told her. “I’d rather learn more about you.”

“Also for another day.” Georgie laughed.

“Just let me put a bug in your ear. If Cade Hannigan ever comes anywhere near you, run as fast as you can in the other direction. I mean it.” She refilled her glass from the pitcher. “’Nough said on that topic. For now.”

Georgie enjoyed sitting there chatting with the women. They talked about everything and nothing. She learned more about the county than all her research had unearthed. And unexpectedly, she felt very comfortable with her new friends.

Every so often, her eyes would stray over to the man hunched in the corner, her curiosity piqued. She’d certainly never been as rich as Cade Hannigan, but she’d worked her way up to a solid position of success at Carlton Enterprises before the bottom fell out of her life. She knew what it was to have what you wanted and lose everything, although financially she’d come out of it better off than this man obviously was.

Leave it alone, Georgie. He is what he is. Pay attention to what these women said.

Glancing at her watch, she drained the rest of the beer in her glass. “Well. My day starts very early tomorrow so I better hit the road.” She looked around the table “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you asking me to join you.”

“Everyone needs friends,” Jinx said. “I found that out the hard way. Maybe we just met, but I think we all get really good vibes from you. Let’s make sure you’ve got everyone else’s cell number besides mine. And give them yours.”

“And lunch next week,” Reenie reminded her.

Georgie gave them her cell number and they each punched theirs into her phone. For the first time since she’d run away from the mess in Dallas, she began to feel as if her life was taking an upturn again. She stood up and tugged on her jacket.

“Thanks again,” she told them.

As she turned toward the door, she realized the man huddled in the corner had pushed back his chair and was stumbling toward the entrance. She tried to avoid him but they collided right near the door. She took a step back, overwhelmed by the odor of whiskey.

“Watch where you’re going,” he snarled, knocking her into the nearest table.

She took a step back, holding up her hands. Behind her, she heard the scraping of chairs and glanced over to see that the women she’d just left had all risen from the table. She shook her head.

“I’m good. I’ll just let him get a little distance before I try the exit again.”

As he moved past her, he glanced up from beneath the brim of his hat. For a very brief moment, their eyes locked. She expected to see bitterness and anger in them, but instead she was shocked by the pain and misery there. Then he turned away and shoved through the door.

When he had left, she waved at the women and headed out the door herself. But driving home, she couldn’t get him out of her mind. Not just the odor of the alcohol or his disreputable appearance. The despair she saw there made her want to cry.

What on earth had happened to send a man that far over the edge? Sooner or later, she’d make it her business to find out.