Knight of Hearts by Suzie Quint
series: A McKnight Romance
erotic contemporary cowboy/western romance
cover art by Valerie Tibbs
They have a deal: Rachel will teach the newly divorced Mac to date again, and he'll accompany her to her brother's wedding. Seems like a straight forward trade, but when Mac decides the kisses he wants can only be found on Rachel's lips, he sabotages all her efforts to find him another woman.
Rachel's never met a man more inept at meeting women. If he's not sharing inappropriate information, he's hitting them with the worst come-on lines she's ever heard. The man can't even do a decent Texas Two-Step. If she didn't need a date to her brother's wedding so desperately . . .
It was nearly half an hour before Mac appeared, resentful and surly. Rachel was in no mood to put up with his bad attitude.
"You better put a pleasant look on your face, or I'm going to consider my obligation to your education forfeit," she threatened.
"Fine. Has it occurred to you that we were out until after two o'clock this morning?"
"Hey, I was there, too. And I've been getting up and working every day while you slept in. Now get yourself over to that weight machine and do crunches until you turn into a human being again."
Mac grumbled but he went.
After ten minutes, Rachel brought him a frothy orange juice.
"Thanks," Mac growled, but he sounded less like the hibernating grizzly she'd awakened.
Rachel went to work on the treadmill.
Ten minutes later, Mac approached her, a towel draped around his neck. Without a word, he turned on the machine next to hers. He started slow, but before long, he'd pushed the speed and grade to the point where his legs were pumping. Sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip and molded his shirt to his chest and back.
Rachel couldn't help but admire the lean strength of his legs even as she tried with only marginal success to ignore the way the sweaty T-shirt clung to his upper body. He kept it up for twenty minutes before he slowed the machine and started cooling down.
She was waiting when he stepped off. He wiped his face with the towel and followed her to the juice bar where she got them both bottles of Evian.
"Thanks," he said, his legs extended under the table. One arm draped over the vacant straight back chair beside him. "I needed that."
"You're not much of a morning person, are you?"
Mac grinned, his spirits obviously better now that he'd sweated out some of the toxins he'd drunk the night before. "Too many years running a tavern. I haven't used an alarm clock in ages. I'll bet you bounce out of bed with the first rays of sunshine."
Rachel snorted. "I hate mornings. But if I don't keep a schedule, I'm a real bitch."
Mac lifted an eyebrow.
"Yes, worse than normal."
"I didn't say it."
"You didn't have to." Diplomacy was an essential part of her job, but once she was off the clock, if they weren't hotel guests, people could take her as she was or leave her alone.
She looked around. "Look, this is an environment where you're at home. There's stuff to talk about besides 'can I get in your panties?' When the women start coming in, I want you to pick one and talk to her. Start casual. Ask about the machine she's on. How it works, how much weight to use, number of reps, whatever it takes to get a conversation started."
When Mac rubbed the stubble on his chin, Rachel thought maybe she should have given him time to drag a razor over his face. Then she decided she liked the raw, unshaved look.
"That sounds like it might work," Mac said.
Rachel saw two attractive blondes walk into gym. "Quick, give me that towel."
He looked surprised, but he surrendered it.
"You're in good shape, Mac. Show off your body. Work up a sweat, then use your shirt to mop your face. Now go!" She waved him toward the gym.
"I don't know, Rachel—"
She flared her eyes at him.
"Okay!" He held his hands up as though defending himself from the laser beams that were going to shoot from her eyes.
Five minutes later, he had one of the blondes showing him how to use the leg press machine, as though he didn't do fifty reps on it every morning. The blonde stayed with him, counting repetitions. Everything looked like it was going according to Hoyle.
Watching them, a vague but unrelenting yearning grew in Rachel's gut. In spite of the frustration Mac could engender, Rachel admired his courage. He wanted back into the dating pool, and he was willing to risk his emotions and his ego, not just once—or even once a day—but over and over, and though he grumbled, he let her send him out to face the next rejection, sometimes with no recovery time in between.
The blonde bent over Mac, asking a question. His response made her laugh before she adjusted his weights, and an arrow seemed to take Rachel through the chest. She wanted that. She wanted someone to stand over her; someone who would encourage her and make sure she wasn't trying to lift too much weight by herself.
Rachel knew she wanted it more than Mac did, but she was a bigger coward. She couldn't take the risks he took. Oh, she could laugh and flirt. Sort of. She could date and hold hands and share tender kisses, but when it came to the clench—when the kisses went from tender to passionate—she froze. An ice sculpture.
Mac's face glistened with sweat as he finished his reps. Unable to banish her longings completely, Rachel resolutely ignored them to focus on Mac and the blonde as they moved to the cross-over machine.
Rachel whispered encouragement he couldn't hear. "Take off your shirt, Mac. Come on." She wouldn't have admitted even under torture that she was looking forward to the vicarious thrill of seeing him bare-chested.
He wiped his forehead with the back of his wrist.
Rachel made a strangled noise of frustration.
Then he stood and turned his back toward her as he removed his shirt.
Rachel groaned softly, her frustration undiminished.
The blonde had been reaching out to touch him, but as the shirt came off, she recoiled. In less than a second, she recovered. Wiping his face with his shirt, Mac hadn't seen. Stretching her neck forward as though the extra inch or two would help her read the woman's expression, Rachel watched the blonde's face with growing apprehension.
Did she see sympathy? That was good, wasn't it?
The two talked for several minutes. Mac's side of the conversation was accompanied with gestures toward his torso. As he continued talking, the woman started glancing to the side as though seeking escape.
At least, she had enough class to hang in until she got Mac situated on the machine before heading off toward the sauna.
Rachel wanted to pound her head on the top of the table. It had looked so promising. Whatever had happened, it had to be Mac's fault. She wanted to throttle him so badly she didn't dare approach him.
When he joined her, he was wearing his shirt again.
"What in the Sam Hill just happened?" Rachel demanded.
"I don't know." Mac looked as clueless as she felt.
"What did you say to her?"
"She asked about my scar, so I told her."
"What scar?" Too late, Rachel realized she should have tried to sound sympathetic, then she thought: Oh, hell. It's not like I need to act all nurturing. We're never going to date.
Mac pulled his shirt up, revealing a wide, white scar that evenly divided the strip of dark, curly hair over his abs. Extending from just under his rib cage, the scar swiveled around his navel and disappeared into his sweat pants.
"Good Heavens! It looks like you've been cut in half with a rotary saw! What happened?"
"Open appendectomy. It's what they do when they're in a hurry going after a hot appendix." He dropped his shirt.
"They really spread you wide open."
Mac shrugged. "Sometimes the appendix isn't exactly where they expect it to be. I damn near died. Wasn't nearly as painful though as the kidney stone that ended up in my urethra two years ago."
"Eewh! You didn't tell her about that, did you?"
Mac's guilty expression answered for him.
Her residual regret over never dating Mac silently died. "Why in heaven's name would you talk about that?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Fine." She threw up her hands in disgust. "If you want the reaction you just got." The man needed a governor on his mouth.
"Are we going out tonight?" Mac asked as though he hadn't just torpedoed his best chance so far.
"No. I'm going to spend the day figuring out what to do about you, and tonight I'm going to bed early."
A twinkle appeared in Mac's blue eyes. "So should I call you in the morning or just nudge you?"
Rachel glared at him, but he just smiled invitingly back at her until she laughed. In spite of the corny lines, Mac did have a certain charm.