Saturday Excerpt: Mistletoe Rodeo by Amanda Renee
Christmas is coming early to Harlequin! Christmas Books have arrived, including today’s Saturday Excerpt from Mistletoe Rodeo by Amanda Renee. Plus, all of the October 2015 Harlequin American Romances includes a FREE bonus novella “Home for Christmas” by Laura Marie Altom. Consider it an early holiday gift! 🙂
About Mistletoe Rodeo:
A CHRISTMAS AS BIG AS TEXAS!
His entire town was counting on Chase Langtry to win the championship title. Instead, the injured bull rider is slinking back to the family ranch. But how can he stay out of the spotlight with relentless reporter Nola West following him home from Vegas? His humiliating loss just can’t be her next story!
Nola’s attraction to the youngest son of Ramblewood’s First Family is shaking her hard-won confidence. And it looks like the only scoop she’ll get is covering the Mistletoe Rodeo charity event. She’s never been a big fan of the holiday. Until Chase vows to show her a Christmas she’ll never forget…
Chase Langtry had thought the baseball cap and hoodie would be enough to elude overly ambitious reporter Nola West. He’d managed to dodge her for the past twenty-four hours, but now here she was standing in the aisle of his first-class cabin. Without even looking past her narrow waist and shapely hips, he knew it was her. Nola was tall, fit and taut in all the right places. Chase deemed himself an expert on her form, considering he’d been studying it for the past two and a half years, but the last thing he needed was to stare into her forget-me-not blue eyes. He’d be a goner for sure.
Scooting down farther in his seat and turning toward the window, Chase hoped Nola would get the message and leave him alone. He was tired, sore and still a bit hungover after blowing it in Las Vegas. Chase had headed into the National Finals Rodeo with a chance of winning it all. Only he’d reinjured his shoulder after his first ride had tossed him faster than tumbleweed in a tornado. And apparently his run of bad luck extended to his flight home because Nola settled in beside him, her arm brushing his.
The cords in his neck stiffened, aggravating his shoulder injury.
“Are you kidding me?” Chase straightened his spine and turned to confront her, immediately regretting the action when she lifted her face to his. She tucked a long strand of honey-blond hair behind one ear and narrowed her gaze.
“Geesh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to encroach on your armrest space.” Nola’s sarcastic tone was all too evident. “I’ll try to be more careful next time.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Chase growled through clenched teeth, more frustrated than angry, thanks to the glimpse of bare thigh he’d just caught. “I’m talking about you—here—next to me—on this plane.”
“Relax, Chase. We’re flying home together—nothing more.” Nola followed his eyes and tugged on her skirt hem.
“KWTT must really want this story if they’re willing to upgrade you to first class. But let’s get things straight—regardless of how nicely you ask, I’m not giving you an interview.”
“I’m not asking for one.” Nola fastened her seat belt and removed her iPad from her bag, paying Chase no further attention.
“No?” The porcelain glow of her skin caused Chase’s fingers to ache, wanting to feel the softness of her cheek. He mentally kicked himself for allowing her presence to upset him. “You always look this stunning at two o’clock in the morning? Traveling in a skirt, high heels and full makeup?”
“You think I look stunning?” Nola glanced sideways at him. “Thank you…I think.”
As if she didn’t know how beautiful she was. Nola West was the last thing Chase needed right now. The past couple days had been bad enough, and now he had to endure four hours on a plane next to the woman he’d thought about almost daily since they’d met. It didn’t help that her lips glimmered with newly applied gloss, which he thought definitely needed to be kissed off. Chase groaned inwardly.
“I’m willing to bet George has a handheld camera and microphone pack in his carry-on in case you snag an interview when we get off the plane.”
“We cover the news.” Nola didn’t look at him, which only confirmed he was right. “We always travel prepared.”
“Why’d you leave George in business class?” This was the first time he’d seen Nola without her ever-present cameraman sidekick. “Shame on you, and shame on the studio for not upgrading him, too.”
“You’re cranky and full of assumptions tonight, aren’t you?” Nola glanced at him, one perfectly groomed brow arched higher than Chase would have thought possible.
“Not that I would expect you to notice, but there’s a woman traveling with George and me on this trip. Unbeknownst to the studio, he brought his wife along—which we’d like to keep secret, if you don’t mind. He wasn’t about to upgrade his ticket to first class and leave her back there. Some people think of others, not just themselves.”
Chase gripped his thighs. Was this a jab at him? Just because he was goal oriented didn’t mean he was selfish. He fought to ignore Nola’s comment. Getting into a war of words with her wouldn’t make the flight any easier.
“I’d ask why you’re not staying until the end of the competition, but I already know the answer. You’re focused on my failure.”
“You didn’t fail, Chase.” Nola huffed in the same exasperated tone Chase’s mother used when her grandkids acted up. “You had a bad night. It happens to the best of them. You’re right—I was in Vegas to cover you for the local news, and I’m leaving because you are.”
“I can see the headline now.” Chase sagged into the seat. “Hometown Hero Humiliated at National Finals Rodeo.” He’d been pegged to win the World All-Around Champion Cowboy title.
“Was this a pity party? Because I forgot to bring a gift.” Nola sighed. “It’s not the end of the world. You’ve known me for a while now. Have I ever cast you in a bad light? No, I haven’t. I’ve always covered you and your family in a respectful way. Besides, I can spin the story so it doesn’t look as bad as it really is. Wait—I didn’t mean it like that.”
Nola reached for his arm but he shook her off. He didn’t want anyone’s pity. “I know exactly what you meant.”
Chase watched the lights of the Vegas strip fade as the plane lifted off. He was heading home a failure, and no matter how Nola spun the story, it wouldn’t change the fact that he’d blown it. His entire hometown of Ramblewood, Texas, had counted on him to bring home the coveted championship belt buckle. And not only had he not won, but he also had left the competition early. He could thank his stubbornness for leading him straight to a disastrous finish on day two. Chase had known when he’d pulled the ligaments in his shoulder two weeks earlier that he should have bowed out of the competition. But too many people had invested in him, and he’d refused to let them down. His doctors had cautioned him that one more injury could end his career. And yesterday’s ride had probably done just that.
His older brother, Shane, hadn’t helped matters by constantly pushing Chase into the spotlight. The World All-Around title had been Shane’s dream, but he’d given up his own chance to compete so he could devote more time to his son’s rodeo schedule. In the end, Chase could’ve said no, but he hadn’t, and there was no one to blame except himself.
Chase and Shane jointly owned the state-of-the-art Ride ’em High! Rodeo School. Having a world champion on the roster would’ve been great for business. Not that they were in need of more students; since their doors opened a few years ago, the school has been booked full every session. Chase felt as if he’d failed not only his family this week but his students, too.
As if things hadn’t been bad enough already, sitting next to Nola—as savvy as she was sexy—unnerved him more than the final seconds atop a bull before the chute gate swung open. Chase was determined not to let her get the better of him.
“I spoke to your mom before she flew home yesterday,” Nola said. “Regardless of what happened in the competition, she’s really proud of you.”
“You interviewed my mom?” Chase shoved his hoodie back and faced her. Going after him for an interview was one thing—his family was another.
“Of course not.” Nola met his gaze, her annoyance evident. “I saw her in the lobby as she was leaving.”
The lengths reporters went to in order to get a story irritated Chase. But Nola’s pursuit tried his patience even more and he wasn’t sure why. “In other words, you were stalking me in the lobby—waiting for me to come down. I bet if I ask my mother, she’d confirm that George was by your side.”
“He was.” Nola ran her palms slowly down the front of her skirt. “And I was waiting for you, but it was out of concern. You took a hard hit out there. When you got injured, I genuinely cared.”
Nola’s words softened with her admission. Chase swallowed hard, afraid he’d say too much. “The only thing injured is my pride,” Chase lied and turned back to the window. “Thank you for your concern.”
“Don’t mention it.” The natural lilt of her voice returned. “Your mom is really excited about Christmas this year. All the grandkids must be getting big. I haven’t seen them in a year, at least. I bet your house is packed over the holidays.”
There lay the other reason Chase hated to go home. He’d considered changing his flight to meet up with some of his friends in Cancun, but the thought had been short-lived. Once his mother had gotten wind of it she’d threatened to tan his hide. In the Langtry household, Christmastime was family time. Every year his mother would decorate the ranch from the entrance to the stables in a display guaranteed to delight the electric company. The rest of Ramblewood had nothing on her. She’d even spread the holiday spirit to the stables by placing small wreaths on each of the stall doors and insisting on red or green halters and blankets for the horses. Once night fell, the ranch glowed so brightly that he and his brothers swore it must be visible from outer space.
Chase loved his family, but they were a constant reminder of what he didn’t have—a wife and kids of his own. With his wealth and status, it had become increasingly difficult to tell if a woman was interested in him or his bank account. It always hit him harder this time of year, especially now that all of his brothers were married with children. The irony of the situation was that none of his brothers had even wanted to settle down. Chase, however, had always envisioned a house full of children running around, much like the one he grew up in.
Chase hated to admit it, but he was envious of his three older brothers. Their children were their greatest accomplishments. Jesse and Miranda’s twins, Jackson and Slade, had turned two this past July; his niece Ever was seven; and his fifteen-year-old nephew, Hunter, was well on his way to becoming a champion rodeo competitor himself. By the time Chase got around to having children, their cousins would be married with kids of their own.
Turning thirty in a couple of days only added to his frustration. Chase wished he’d said yes to Can-cun and was headed to Mexico rather than sitting next to a woman he’d much rather ask to dinner than argue with. But a date with Nola was out of the question. She had an air of worldly sophistication about her and would surely prefer someone who had a lot more going on than a rodeo cowboy, regardless of his wealth. Besides, the only time Chase ever saw her was when he or his family were part of her news coverage. No, the attraction was definitely one-sided.
“Please don’t take this personally, but I’m not up for talking tonight.” It was better to end the conversation now before he became even more aggravated.
Nola shrugged and refocused her attention on her screen. Chase popped in his earbuds and turned up the volume of his iPod, drowning out the world around him. Closing his eyes as he settled against the seat, he pulled his hat down lower.
Nola deserved better than his ornery attitude. If he hadn’t found the reporter so attractive, maybe he could find a way to be more cordial to her. But that was the problem—she was a journalist above all else, and anything he did or said would appear in her next story. Nola West made no apologies for her persistent climb up the network ladder, and Chase refused to be one of those rungs.
The woman was too perfectly poised. Chase would like to get her dirty—show her what it felt like to be out of her element and relinquish control to someone else. If circumstances were different, he’d love to help her find her wild side for an hour or two. He gave his head a shake. Nola needed to remain off-limits.
Reporting from the side of a war-torn highway in Kuwait had been easier than tracking down Chase Langtry in Nevada. He’d managed to avoid her at every turn. Her studio had shelled out big bucks for Nola to secure the interview, although they had anticipated it would be about a local cowboy making good. Once her news director had heard of Chase’s disastrous ride, he’d dangled the upcoming KWTT co-anchor position in front of Nola. He had warned her if she ever expected to get anywhere in this business, she had better start bringing in some harder-hitting stories. The rise and fall of the rodeo star was a start.
When she had seen Chase drowning his sorrows in the hotel bar last night, she’d felt a tinge sorry for him—but it had been short-lived. Based on everything her cousin Kylie had told her about the Lang-trys, the four brothers had had their lives, and then some, handed to them on a silver platter. The famously rich “First Family of Ramblewood” had it all. If losing the championship at the National Finals Rodeo was the worst thing that had happened to Chase, then he needed to count his blessings. She’d seen people take some serious knocks in life, and losing a rodeo competition didn’t even come close.
Nola had first interviewed Chase and the Langtry family two and a half years ago at the grand opening of the Ride ’em High! Rodeo School and Dance of Hope Hippotherapy Center. While Nola had simply adored the mother, Kay, she’d thought the brothers were a little over-the-top and too entitled.
“Would you care for a drink?” a flight attendant asked.
“Scotch, please.” No girly drinks for Nola. She’d learned how to drink around military men, and unless it burned on the way down, it didn’t classify as a drink.
They both looked at Chase when he didn’t respond, but he was oblivious with his headphones tucked firmly in place. After a quick nudge from Nola’s elbow, Chase turned the music down long enough to order a bourbon and then quickly resumed sulking in the corner.
Nola had known Chase would travel first class and had convinced her news director, Pete, to approve her ticket upgrade only to discover she was seated a few rows behind the cowboy. After a little flirtation with the man originally assigned to her seat, Nola had managed to finagle her way beside Chase.
If he’d remove those damn things from his ears and talk to her, she might have something worth reporting. A brooding cowboy didn’t make much of a headline, but a man battling his inner demons might be enough to satisfy both the station and Chase. After all, there were two sides to every story, but Chase needed to open up in order for Nola to save his reputation and possibly his wounded pride.
So Nola did what her seven years in the Army had trained her to do. She improvised. When the flight attendant handed Nola her drink, she purposely bumped it so it spilled on Chase’s iPod.
“Oh, you’re good.” Chase pushed back his ball cap, exposing more of his tousled blond hair. He stared at her with a piercing turquoise glare that would’ve intimidated most people, but Nola had covered the news from the landmine-ridden Persian Gulf countryside and had witnessed the other side of evil. Chase didn’t come close.
“I’ve got to hand it to you, Nola—I didn’t see that one coming.”
Nola had to hand it to him. He didn’t get mad or even swear. He just quietly tossed everything into an airline barf bag, earbuds and all.
“It was an accident.” Nola fought to squelch her guilt. “Don’t you carry a spare iPod with you?”
“No, I don’t carry a spare iPod with me,” Chase mocked. “Who would? And please don’t play coy. I don’t believe that was an accident. You’re too precise and calculating for that to happen.”
Nola recoiled at his remark, though it wasn’t completely off base. She had learned to maintain discipline out of necessity and survival. There had been a time in her life when Reckless was her middle name.
“Okay, you have my attention.” Chase dabbed at his jeans with the tissues she handed him from her bag. “What do you want to talk about? I already told you no interviews, so I hope you don’t think this will change anything.”
* * *