Desiree Holt | USA Today & Award-Winning Author

Naked Flame

Naked Cowboys, Book 6

Charity Vance needs someplace to lie low and decide what to do with the rest of her life. Burned out from years in the Dallas PD, she’s eager for a fresh start in Saddle Wells, Texas. On a night out with friends, she can’t help but notice the brooding local bar owner needs a hand, so she steps in and ends up right in his arms.

After two tours in Afghanistan, Liam Douglas has settled in to Saddle Wells, running his dad’s bar, but it’s hard to keep good help. Having Charity around is more of a distraction than he wants or needs, but he can’t seem to deny whatever there is between them.

When a drug lord from Charity’s past breaks out of jail and comes looking for revenge, she knows it will be better for everyone if she leaves town, but leaving Liam is more difficult than she thought, and although neither one of them wanted a relationship, it seems there are already strings binding their hearts.

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Chapter One

Charity Vance dropped into the chair at her desk, leaned back and ran her hands through her short cap of dark curls. The day had been especially grueling. Testifying in court always made her edgy, but today was especially more so. The takedown of the drug dealer, the gunfight that had erupted that night and the constant tension in the courtroom had all combined to give her the mother of all headaches. Not that every trial didn’t have its own strain, but Paco Morales was truly a power-hungry psycho who didn’t take kindly to having that power disrupted. While she answered the questions from both the district attorney and the defense attorney, she’d called on every bit of self-discipline to be able to look directly at him.

The threats shouted at her as she stepped down from the witness stand still echoed in her ears as she’d left the building and driven back to the police department offices. Hard as she tried, she couldn’t erase Paco Morales’s shouts from her brain.

“I’ll get you, bitch. Prison won’t stop me. My crew will find you wherever you go.”

She hadn’t felt the tension ease up until she’d reached the comfort of the bullpen at the Dallas Police Department. In ten years with the police department, she’d faced a lot of down and dirty, hostile criminals, but none had actually frightened her the way Morales did. Maybe part of it was just exhaustion with the job. The Morales task-force project had been long, intensive and draining. She felt as if every bit of energy had seeped from her body and left her limp and exhausted.

She needed to make some decisions about her future life before the events in this one killed her altogether.

“Still thinking about Morales?”

A gravelly voice interrupted her thoughts. Charity opened her eyes to see Milo Stanton, her lieutenant, standing beside her desk. Tall and heavy set, he looked like the former boxer she’d discovered he’d once been. His jacket was off as usual, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his tie askew. He looked the way he always did, as if he’d pulled an all-nighter and carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. But he also projected a stability that had kept her grounded since she’d joined his squad. The enormous, solid presence had settled her and given her comfort more than once.

Her gaze dropped to the large Starbucks coffee he had the fingers of one large hand wrapped around.

“Oh, bless you, bless you.” She took the cup, lifted the lid and inhaled. Her favorite. Mocha latte topped with whipped cream. She licked the frothy topping before taking a slow sip. “Heaven. Sheer heaven.”

“Better than the mud we serve here,” Stanton agreed. “I figured you’d need it by now. Helen called to tell me she was on her way back from her interview, so I asked her to stop and get it.”

“Blessings to her too.” Charity took another sip, the delicious mocha latte warming her system and easing her frayed nerves.

“Rumor has it the trial was a real pisser.” Stanton hiked a hip onto the corner of her desk. “I heard Paco was pretty vocal with his threats after your testimony.”

“You could definitely say that.” She shrugged. “Nothing I haven’t heard before though.”

“Listen to me.” Stanton locked his gaze with hers. “He’s no one to ignore. His crew is the most vicious of any drug gang in Dallas County, and they have strong ties to a cartel in Mexico.”

“I know, I know. That’s why the task force worked so hard to tie him up tight.”

“And you did good work on that task force too. I got great feedback on your efforts.”

Charity had been one of two detectives from the Dallas PD assigned to work with the Drug Enforcement Agency to take down the Morales crew and follow the links to Mexico.

“Thanks, LT. It was an excellent group to work with.”

“I thought about assigning some protection to you until the trial is over and Morales is out of the area. He’s got the word out on the street that you’re a top target.”

Charity glared at him. “No. And, no. I mean, no.”

“But—”

“I’m a police officer. You’re going to assign another officer to protect me? We have too many crimes that need solving.”

“And I don’t want your murder to be one of them.” Stanton studied her for a long moment. “There’s another option. You might consider taking some time off until that scum is safely locked away for good. Fully paid, of course. But I do believe you’d be better off out of town for a while.”

Charity lifted the lid on her cup and studied the foam crowning the liquid. She’d been trying to get up the courage to talk to her boss for weeks, but she’d wanted to get this trial behind her first. She hoped he wouldn’t give her a hard time. She pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Actually, LT, there’s something I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.” She set her cup down and sat up straighter in her chair. “This is probably as good a time as ever. Maybe even the optimum one.”

Stanton frowned. “Why do I think this isn’t something I want to hear?”

“I hope you’ll understand what I’m about to say and not give me a hard time.”

“Well, out with it. Let’s hear what it is.”

She sighed. “I’ve been with DPD for ten years now, ever since I graduated from the academy. I love it here and I love everyone I work with.” She gave him an impish grin. “Even you, Mr. Grumpy.”

He gave a soft chuckle. “We work well together,” he agreed.

“But I’m tired. Really tired. The task force really kicked my butt.”

“I’m sure it did,” he agreed.

“I just—I think—” She shook her head. “What I’m trying to say is I need a change. Of scenery as much as anything else.”

“What about Tom? Not that it’s any of my business, but you guys looked like things were really working out.”

Charity fiddled with a pen on the desk. “Yeah, well, appearances can be deceiving. He caught the same disease as the men in my other two relationships.”

“The demands-of-a-cop’s-life disease?” Stanton guessed.

She nodded. “It always works in the beginning, but then the difficulties of the job get to be too much. The late-night callouts, the uncertain hours.” She twisted her lips in a grimace. “And the inability to understand that sometimes when I come home with the weight of the job on me, I just want someone to hold me and be quiet with.”

“Divorce rate is high among police,” he reminded her. “I consider myself damn lucky that RayAnn is the woman she is.”

“Amen to that. Anyway, I think I’m just burned out on the city, this job, the men I meet here. Besides, my two closest friends moved away during the past year, and…and…”

“And you need to get away for a while,” he finished for her.

“More than just a while, LT.” She chewed her lower lip. “I need to try being something besides a cop. Not deal with the scum we see every day. Not, you know, always be looking at the seedy side of life.” She held up her hand when he opened his mouth to say something. “This isn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. I’ve given it a lot of thought. The Morales case just clinched it for me.”

“Charity, you’ve been a cop for ten years. You’re a natural.”

“And maybe I will be again. Who knows?” She took another swallow of the delicious coffee blend. “I’m not running away. I want you to know that. I just need…something different for a while. I want to figure out how to have a real relationship with someone. Do some planning for the future.”

“Yeah, I get that. I do. Just don’t jump into something blindly.”

She ran her fingers through her curls. “I was damn lucky to get out of that firefight with Morales and his crew without even a scratch. I don’t want to tempt fate anymore. At least not for a while.”

Stanton studied her face. “I’m guessing nothing I can do or say will change your mind?”

She shook her head. “I need this, LT. Please believe me when I say that. I tied up all my loose ends here, so before I get assigned to another case, this ought to be a good time for me to turn in my shield.”

“Damn.” He dragged his hand over his face. “I actually had hopes one day you’d move into my chair.”

Charity laughed. “Are you kidding? The last thing I ever want is to ride herd on the yahoos in this office. Or any office. I like them fine, but I’m not boss material. Nor do I want to be.”

“You know you’re one of the best cops—one of the best detectives—to ever serve under me,” Stanton pointed out. “You’ll be sorely missed, for sure.” He sighed again. “But you’re not exactly an impulsive person. I can see in your eyes you’ve thought everything out and really want to do this.”

“I do.”

Stanton rubbed his jaw. “I’ll hate losing you, but I have to agree with one thing. You definitely deserve some down time after this Morales thing.” He cocked his head. “What do you plan to do? If you just sit around in your condo you’ll drive yourself nuts.”

“You know me better than that.” She grinned at him. “I’m taking a trip.”

He lifted his eyebrows. “A trip? For how long? And what about when you come back?”

“Actually, I’m going to sublet my condo and head southwest for a while. A little town in the Texas Hill Country called Saddle Wells.”

He chuckled. “Never heard of it.”

“I don’t imagine you have. One of my college sorority sisters lives there and I’m going to visit her for a while.” She drained the rest of her coffee and stood up. “I’d like to kind of slide out of here quietly, if it’s all the same to you. Can we just go into your office, I can hand in my gun and my shield and disappear into thin air?”

“If that’s the way you want it.” He stood up. “The guys will be disappointed they didn’t get to say goodbye. Pete especially.”

Pete Fontaine had been her partner for three years. He deserved a face-to-face and she’d make sure it happened. “I’m planning to call him, go have coffee or a drink with him. He’ll understand. But that’s it.”

“Okay, come on into my office.”

She followed him to where a corner of the room had been partitioned off for him and waited while he sat down behind his desk.

“So when do you leave?” he asked.

“Now that my testimony’s over? As soon as I can pack and get the sublet signed.”

She handed over her gun and shield and watched while he put them away in a locked drawer in his desk.

“You know I want what’s best for you, Charity. You’re not just a damn good cop. You’re a terrific person. You’ll be missed.”

“I’ll miss you and the guys too. But I really need to do this. For me.”

“Like I said before, it’s probably just as well you’re out of here until they turn the key on Morales for good.”

She held out her hand for him to shake, but he just looked at her and hauled her in for a hug.

“If you ever tell anyone I did that, I’ll call you a liar. Take care, Charity. And keep in touch.”

“I will. I promise.”

She took the back stairs rather than a walk through the bullpen to get to the elevator. Goodbyes of any kind made her uncomfortable and gave her at least one reason to be thankful she and Tom had split. Tomorrow, the Bentleys were coming over to sign the papers for the sublet. The day after that, a company was coming to put all her things in storage. Then she just needed to load up her SUV and she’d be off.

Now that the stress of the trial was over and she’d gotten past handing in her shield, Charity felt lighthearted, almost giggly. She was looking forward to the drive west and to seeing Amy Stark again. Amy Montgomery now. She smiled to herself. The last time she’d seen her friend was at her wedding to Buck. Charity had nearly swallowed her tongue when she’d met Buck Montgomery, a tall, dark and brooding man who was obviously deeply in love with his bride and very protective of her as well. Charity was sure their story would be damn interesting to listen to, if she ever pried it out of her friend.

She had been very insistent about not imposing on them for an extended visit. Her mother always told her that guests, like fish, began to smell after three days. But she allowed for the possibility she might like Saddle Wells enough to hang out there for a while. So even though she’d promised Amy she’d spend the first couple of days at the Montgomery ranch, she’d done some research online and found the Butterfly Bed and Breakfast. The name alone intrigued her, as did the pictures of the old facility that had been restored with an obvious amount of love.

Back in her car she speed-dialed Amy’s number.

“I’m a free woman,” she added, feeling the tension seep from her body.

“Hallelujah! I can’t wait to see you. When are you leaving Dallas?”

“I’m making reservations at that B&B,” she said, ignoring her friend’s loud objections, “and tomorrow I’ll be on my way.

“I’ll stay with you and Buck for a couple of nights,” she promised, “but then I’ll move over there.”

“You can stay here forever, if you want,” Amy insisted. “I’m so excited you’re actually coming to see us.”

Charity laughed. “That feeling won’t last too long if I make myself a permanent guest. No, this will be perfect, sweetie. We can have two nights for a gabfest and then I’ll move my stuff to the Butterfly. Don’t argue. My mind is made up.”

“Do they know you might be there a while? It’s really not a long-term facility.”

“The woman I spoke to said they could book me for a month. By that time, I expect to make up my mind about what to do next.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Amy told her in a sly voice. “You might like Saddle Wells enough to stay here permanently.”

“We’ll see. Let me get there first.”

Charity needed to rediscover herself and have some alone time, figure out what to do with the rest of her life. The Butterfly looked like the perfect place to do just that.

If it turned out to be in Saddle Wells, so be it. Otherwise, she’d move on to another place. She didn’t even know if she’d be able to adjust to small-town life, but she wanted to give it a shot. She pulled into the underground parking garage of the building where her condo was. The neighborhood was a little pricey for a cop’s salary, even a detective first class. But four years ago, when her father died of a sudden heart attack, she’d been shocked to discover he had a sizable life-insurance policy. She supposed it had originally been meant for her mother, but a traffic accident had claimed the woman who’d given Charity life a year before her father’s heart attack.

So the money had come to her and she’d used some of it to buy a place she actually liked coming home to.

All that sadness and tragedy only added to her desire to get out of Dallas. She was tired, worn out from the task force, still had nightmares of the firefight the night they had arrested the Morales crew. She needed this change for a lot of reasons.

Charity lifted her face to the warm rays of the sun while she pumped gas into her SUV outside the convenience store. The thing was a gas hog, but she liked the feeling of security its size gave her. And it would be solid to drive on the open highway. Almost a week had passed since she’d walked out of the DPD for the last time and now she was itching to get on the road. Storing everything from the apartment had been delayed by a day, then the cleaning service had needed an extra day to do its thing. But finally, this morning, she’d loaded everything else she owned into her SUV. By seven o’clock, she was headed out. According to her GPS, without problems, she should be in Saddle Wells in six hours.

When her tank was full, she’d grab a sweet roll and coffee and finally, finally head out of Dallas. The truck was loaded top to bottom, every square inch of space taken up except the front seat.

I’ll bet Amy isn’t expecting me to show up as if I’m moving in for a year.

But she wanted the option of having everything she needed with her. She had no special itinerary, just planned to play things by ear. Maybe she’d like the little town where Amy lived enough to rent a place and stay for a while. But if she wanted to just pick up and move on, well, she wanted to have all her stuff with her. Thanks to the balance of the insurance money and what she’d managed to save, she had enough of a cushion that she didn’t have to sweat it. She’d have time to figure out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

Not be a cop? Was that even possible after all this time?

The question kept buzzing around in her brain. It was all she’d ever been, all she’d ever known. All she’d ever done. Could she switch to something totally foreign from that? She gave herself a virtual smack. She didn’t have to decide that now. Or decide anything. She just needed to get to Saddle Wells, Texas, and let it all hang out for a while. In a way, she was a little frightened. For the first time in years, neither her job nor her life would define who she was. She could remake herself into someone brand new. And would she like that person?

“Hey, your pump has shut off. Just in case you didn’t notice.”

The deep voice startled her out of her mental wonderings. When she looked up to see who it belonged to, she nearly dropped the handle of the gasoline hose. Not two feet away, at the front of her SUV, was a man who could have stepped off the poster for ultimate masculinity. He wasn’t handsome. Well, not exactly. His slightly longish, slightly ragged sun-streaked brown hair framed a face that had seen a lot of exposure to the elements. And on him it looked good. Emerald-green eyes watched her from the palette of a tanned face drawn with a square jaw, high cheekbones and straight brows.

He looked to be well over six feet, with broad shoulders and worn jeans that did little to disguise a muscular build, narrow hips and long, lean legs. He had a masculine mouth, the kind a woman could lock lips with for a long time. When she stared at him, he smiled, and the tiny dimple at one corner of his mouth gave his face an erotically wicked look.

Damn, Charity. Lose your brain much?

“I’m sorry.” She managed to pull the nozzle from the gas tank and replaced it on the pump. “I was just daydreaming, I guess. Thanks for the heads up.”

I hope I don’t look too stupid.

Although what did she care? The chances she’d ever see this man again were slimmer than slim to none. And probably a damn good thing, the way her record with men had turned out.

“My pleasure.”

His deep voice rolled over her like warm molasses, sending delicious shivers of pleasure racing through her body.

Oh my God, Charity, get a grip.

Unable to move, she stood where she was and watched him as he strolled over to his truck with a loose-hipped walk, climbed into the monster and cranked the engine. Yanking herself back to reality, she took the receipt spit out by the machine and headed into the store for the coffee and pastry. When she came back out, the truck was still there, only now it had pulled away from the pump and was parked to the side. Through the window, she could still see Mr. Hunk in the cab, cell phone clapped to his ear.

Without warning, he glanced out the windshield and locked his gaze on her. She froze, embarrassed to be caught ogling him. But she couldn’t seem to tear her eyes away from him. What the hell? She’d just gotten out of one long-term relationship and wasn’t interested in starting up another. Not even a hot quickie. Her first priority was to get her life in order and establish new goals for herself.

She turned to climb into her vehicle, but not before she saw him grin at her and touch the brim of his hat. The potent aura of his masculinity seemed to invade the air even outside the truck. She wondered if they had any like him in Saddle Wells.

Liam Douglas sat in the cab of his truck and watched the woman screw the gas cap on her SUV. The tee-shirt and jeans she wore gave him a good idea of her figure—medium height, full breasts, hips a man could hold on to and long legs to wrap around him. When she walked into the convenience store, the sway of her hips had made his cock swell and press against his fly. What the hell? No woman had been able to get even a half-hearted response from him in what seemed like forever. Now Mr. Happy wanted to have a party with a strange woman at a gas pump?

He watched her leave the store, juggling coffee and a small paper bag. Before climbing back into her car she paused and grinned at him. Something about her touched parts of him that he’d kept buried for a long time. Life was certainly weird. Good thing he’d never see her again, because he sure wasn’t in any condition to start something up with a woman. A female like her needed a man who could satisfy her physically and emotionally, and right now that sure wasn’t him.

He picked up his cell phone from its spot in the console and pushed speed dial.

“The sun ain’t up yet,” a voice growled in his ear.

“Sure it is, old man.” Liam grinned. His father was about the only person who could put a smile on his face these days. “Just take a look out your window. Besides, if I know you, you’ve been drinking that mud you call coffee and watching the clock for the last hour.”

“Old habits die hard.” There was a pause. “Besides, I was worried about you. How did it go in Dallas?”

Liam shifted in his seat. The visit had been a tough one, and his father knew that.

“As good as could be expected under the circumstances.”

The circumstances. Yeah. An innocuous term for an emotional event.

“So you on your way back?” Mike asked.

“Yeah. Just about to hit the Interstate. You still good to open the bar for me at lunch?”

The old man snorted. “I did it for thirty years, didn’t I? I think I can handle it for another day.”

Liam blew out a breath. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.” Just as he appreciated his dad turning over the running of Mike’s to him. It kept him busy enough to keep the wartime memories at bay and fall into an exhausted sleep each night after closing.

“No sweat, son. Just drive carefully.” He paused. “And Liam?”

“Yeah, Dad?”

“This was a good thing you did.”

Liam swallowed a sigh. “Yeah, Dad, I know. It was the least I could do.” He disconnected the call.

Since I came back alive and Darren didn’t. And it’s my fault.

Darren Mulholland had served with him on a Delta Force team in Afghanistan. Two tours, in the heat of the summer and the brutal winters in the Hindu Kush Mountains. They had gone through Delta training together, bonded in the way only men in battle can, and learned each other’s most intimate details. When Darren was killed, Liam mourned him as if he’d lost a member of his own family, which he had in a way.

And he couldn’t shake the feeling that he could have saved him, a feeling that clung to him like a funeral shroud.

One of the worst things he’d ever had to do was accompany Darren’s body home and help his wife, Lisa, through the funeral and the details afterward. But he’d done it stoically, as he knew Darren would have for him. If he had a wife. No, there was just his father, Mike, who himself had served in a different conflict. And who’d supported him when he’d come home with his own wounds exacerbated by the emotional ones caused by Darren’s death.

Although he’d kept tabs on Lisa and the kids after that, they hadn’t really talked a lot. Then out of the blue, she’d called to tell him she was moving. She couldn’t live in the house anymore. And while she had friends and family to help her, she really wanted Liam to come and assist, especially when it came to packing up Darren’s things.

Reluctantly, he’d hauled himself out of the narrow comfort zone he’d built around himself and driven to Dallas to help her. He’d held her while she cried over Darren’s medals, his dress uniform, his other memorabilia. Then he’d packed it all up and labeled it for her and taken her out for dinner and a bottle of wine.

He’d be damn glad to get back to Saddle Wells and the bar, where he wasn’t required to be more than superficially involved with his customers or anyone else. After seeing the damage deployment and the scars of war did to relationships, he’d vowed never to put himself in that situation. Not that he’d ever be deployed again, not with his injuries.

But vestiges of his tours in battle zones still clung to him, like the nightmares he couldn’t shake of the men who’d died around him, the unremitting stink of death and war and the wounds that had affected his body. He wasn’t much of a prize package for anyone. Nor did he think he had any emotion left to give to a woman. He’d pulled inside himself and he was happy to stay that way.

As if to remind him of the injuries he’d carry with him forever, his left leg, the one with the steel pins in it, suddenly cramped and sent pain shooting through his body. He gritted his teeth and massaged it until the spasm eased. Then he put the truck in gear, pulled out onto the street and headed for the Interstate.

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