Zack’s Ranch, Bridleton #3

Chapter One


                The instant Zack Bartell’s gaze settled on the thick cascade of auburn hair, anticipation whipped through his body like a flash fire. His long, exhausting day suddenly improved beyond his wildest hopes. He could only see the silhouette of Meredith Courtland’s face, but there was no mistaking the familiar outline of her slender nose, the lush curve of mouth and independent tilt of chin. Didn’t he see them often enough in dreams?

Her enticingly feminine features had a frame of straight, glossy hair that fell over her shoulders. He’d only seen her hair free from bondage a few times, yet he’d fantasized about sinking his fingers in the lush mass and losing himself in sensual bliss. Just one of the many things he’d imagined doing with the way-too-reticent lady.

“What’ll it be, buddy?”

“Whiskey, neat,” he told the bartender as he leaned a hip against the padded chrome bar stool. He accepted the drink, tossed down a bill in payment, and took a sip while keeping Meredith in his line of vision.

It surprised him to see her in the city and especially at this particular nightclub. He rarely patronized the expensive playground for the upwardly mobile San Antonio crowd even though it was within blocks of his office. Not his usual style, but he was feeling restless tonight and wanted to unwind a little before calling it a day.

The club’s décor with its multi-colored lights was especially dazzling for the New Year’s Eve celebration. The air smelled of hot bodies masked in expensive fragrances. Loud music and pulsing excitement filled the elegantly-furnished establishment. In just a few minutes, the crowd would celebrate wildly as the ball dropped, ending an old year and welcoming a new one.

Zack glanced at Meredith’s companions. She sat on a tall bar stool at an equally tall table with two women and one man. He didn’t recognize any of them, but an attractive blonde had her fingers entwined with those of the dark-haired man. A petite brunette seemed to be talking with both her mouth and hands, keeping the others entertained.

When Meri laughed at the brunette’s gesticulations, his heart did a little somersault. He couldn’t hear her laughter, yet the pleasure that lit her face pleased him just as much.

Why hadn’t she told him she’d be in the city? There’d been ample opportunity when he’d spent Christmas at Bridleton. The thought brought a stab of frustration. He had a heavy workload but would have made time for her.

Where was she staying and how long would she be here? He knew for a fact she rarely left the ranch. She kept his entire family organized and assisted his Great Aunt Nanette, the Bartell family matriarch, with the many demands of running her mansion of a home. Meri was hard-working, good-natured, loyal, and had a heart as big as the Texan sun. Everything about her had drawn him from the first time they’d met.

When the volume increased on the televisions, the din of the partygoers quieted a little, as did the music, with all attention focused on the widescreen TVs and images of Times Square. The annual countdown was about to begin. He finished off his drink as the announcer got to thirty, twenty-nine, slid from the stool, and began shouldering his way through the crowd.

Everyone rose to their feet and started to chant along with the countdown; fifteen, fourteen, thirteen. Zack headed straight toward Meredith. His gaze narrowed as a stranger approached her with the obvious intent of hooking up for a kiss. The guy stood as tall as his six feet, but leaner, with short, cropped hair. He halted the other man with a firm hand to the shoulder.

“Mine,” he declared tersely. Twelve, eleven, ten.

The stranger’s body stiffened and his expression turned belligerent. Tension sparked between them. They glared at each other as the crowd shouted nine, eight, seven.

“Zack!” The delight in Meredith’s voice when she caught sight of him had the other man slipping into the crowd, forgotten. Zack turned his attention to Meri. He returned her smile and slipped his arms around her waist, pulling her close as the count dropped to six, five, and then four.

The heat of her palms on his chest branded him through the cotton of his shirt. She tilted her head back to look at him, her light green eyes glittering with warmth. Her lips curved into a sultry smile while the satin of her hair brushed the back of his hands. He had just an instant to absorb the delicious tactile sensations before the count ended; three, two, one.

At the stroke of midnight, Zack lowered his head and touched his lips with hers. So long. He’d waited so long for another taste of her. Sensations assaulted him; warm, moist, sweet. Her breath caught when their lips met and locked. He absorbed the soft sound with a small moan of his own. Her lips trembled as he pressed harder. Then he flicked his tongue across her mouth, silently coaxing.

When her lips parted and welcomed his tongue, he tightened his hold and drew her close to his chest. He felt the slide of her hands over his shoulders at the same time her tongue slid against his in sweet invitation. Barely aware of the revelry around them, they continued to kiss as horns blew, confetti showered them, and cheers of Happy New Year! reverberated around the room.

Zack felt the press of her breasts against his chest and the feel of her feminine curves sent a jolt of heat racing through his body. She tasted of sweetness and fruit. Desire, too long denied, vibrated between them.

He tilted his head, locking their mouths more firmly. Then he slid his hands to her hips, drawing her close enough to feel every soft inch of her body pressed against the hardness of his. Their kiss grew deeper, feeding their hunger, until someone grabbed Meri’s shoulder and tugged hard enough to break the spell.

It took a minute for Zack’s gaze to refocus on her small group of friends. They all stood, grinning, as Meredith slowly turned to them. Zack kept his arms around her waist and drew her back to his chest.

“Happy New Year, Mer!” they exclaimed in unison. They gave him a nod and tried to shout above the raucous celebrating.

“Pete and I are headed to his place,” said the blonde. “Call me before you leave town.”

Meredith nodded.

Next the brunette spoke, “I’m headed to the airport to pick up Jerry. If I don’t see you before you leave, I’ll be in touch!”

“It was good to see you all,” said Meredith. She bade them goodbye and slowly turned in his arms again. Her palms flattened on his chest, her warm hands warming his heart. The smile she gave him made his breath stutter and his gut clench.

“Where are you staying?” he asked, dropping his head nearer to hers so she could hear his question. The scented softness of the skin at her neck tantalized him into brushing it with a light kiss.

“Faith’s apartment,” she replied, her neck arching and breath hitching at his feathery caress. Then she added, “Faith is the blonde.”

“She’s going home with Pete,” he reminded her. Then he frowned. Were all her friends abandoning her in this mass of humanity? “Let’s get out of here so we can talk. Do you have a coat?”

At her nod, they moved toward the entrance, collected her coat, and continued to weave their way to the front door. Once outside, they stopped in a circle of neon light, grateful to leave the heavy, airless atmosphere of the club behind them. Other party revelers swarmed out of the club’s entrance, laughing, blowing paper horns, and hailing cabs.

 The cool night air was a welcome relief to Zack, but Meredith shivered. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, drawing her close to his side while putting some distance between them and the other partygoers.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Just a chill, but I’m fine.”

She was beyond fine, he thought. Her cheeks held an attractive blush; her eyes shimmered with seductive heat as they locked with his.

“What happened to all your friends?” he asked.

“We decided to leave as soon as the ball dropped to beat the rush.”

“So where’s Faith’s apartment?”

“It’s across town. I have the address.”

His frown deepened. “But she won’t be there tonight, right? You’ll be alone in a strange apartment?”

“I’m a big girl,” she reminded. But when she tipped her head back more to smile at him, her body swayed.

He tightened his grip on her. “How much have you had to drink?”

“Not too much, but I’m not a very good drinker.” She clutched the lapels of his sports jacket to steady herself.

Zack looked down at her and his frown deepened. No way was he letting her roam the city at midnight in such a vulnerable state. He’d never forgive himself if something happened to her. She could stay at his apartment. She’d probably give him hell in the morning, but she’d be safe.

“My place,” he decided.

“You live here?” she asked, gazing back at the nightclub entrance with wide, curious eyes.

Her befuddled expression made him grin. No doubt about it, the booze had fogged her sharp, practical mind.

“Close,” he said. “I can get a cab, but it’s just a few blocks.  We can walk if you’re up for it.”

The trip might sober her a little and help him cool his jets. His body hummed with hot, heavy desire. Having her in his arms and feasting on her kisses had temporarily scattered his wits. He’d waited too long and hungered too much. If she spent the night with him, he’d need to draw on some serious reserves of control.

“Walk,” she agreed, sounding a little more like herself. “I can get a cab from your place.”

He turned her in the direction of his office building. Settling an arm around her waist, they walked for a while in silence. When quiet finally settled around them, he asked, “Why didn’t you let me know you were going to be in the city?”

“Last minute plans,” she replied softly.

“You could have called.”

She went quiet for a minute. When he thought she might not answer, she explained. “I had to do this alone.”

“Do what?”

“Say a final goodbye.”

Then Zack remembered. December thirty-first was the anniversary of her husband’s death. He’d been killed three years ago while on active duty with the Army. Killed with two of his friends in an enemy ambush. The details slid through his mind. He’d never met the other man, but Meredith’s widow status had forced him to tread softly when he’d wanted nothing more than to sweep her off her feet from the first day they’d met.

“Did you say goodbye?”


Her emotional wariness had kept him at bay for months now. He knew his wild attraction for her was reciprocated. At least partially. They couldn’t be in the same room without sexual tension sizzling between them. So far, he’d patiently waited. He had no desire to crush her resistance. He wanted her willing and uninhibited by ghosts or regrets. He wanted her as starved for him as he was for her.

“Does that mean you’re finally ready to risk a new relationship?” He asked quietly.

Meri stiffened and his gut tightened in response. They stopped and turned to face each other again. Her gaze locked with his. The dim illumination of street lights cast shadows over her pale features, but her chin lifted and her eyes glowed with purpose.

She reached up to cup his face in her hands, and then stood on tiptoe to press her mouth against his. The arousal he’d felt in the club clutched at him with renewed strength. So much for cooling his jets. Just the touch of her mouth, offered willingly, made his blood run hot.

She’d never given him the slightest encouragement, never hinted at wanting more from him. She’d obstinately ignored the sexual tension between them and firmly rejected any overture of a personal nature. Until tonight. Until this minute. A tremor passed through him as he greedily responded to her offering.

Clasping his arms around her, he lifted her into his body, into the hunger of his kisses. Their tongues met and dueled; hot, wet, greedy. Her lips were soft and pliant, her taste sinfully sweet, her tongue a velvety demand. Her hands slid around his neck, fingers sinking into his hair. She tugged his head closer and the needy little action had his senses reeling. They kissed until they couldn’t breathe, caught a quick breath, and then sunk into another long, drugging kiss. He grunted with impatience as they strained to get closer, but their layers of clothing hindered his efforts.

A car full of partygoers passed them, shouting and honking in the New Year. The distraction had Zack breaking the kiss and setting Meredith at arm’s length. They drew in ragged gasps of breath, and then expelled it in streams of rapidly chilling vapor.

“We’re almost at my place,” he declared gruffly as he fought to leash his desire. Wrapping an arm around her shoulder again, he guided her across another intersection while struggling to regulate his breathing. Chest tight, he mentally challenged himself to ignore the pulsing demands of his body. He had to gather his scattered wits before he spooked Meredith. She didn’t act wary, but he’d waited too long and wanted too much to make a mistake that couldn’t be rectified. He needed to keep a clear head and tread carefully.

They walked the last few yards to their destination in silence. The old converted townhouse sat in a row of similarly-styled structures that had been part of a city’s beautification project. He’d bought the property when real estate values dipped to a record-breaking low. Totally renovated now, it was a prime location. He and his partner, Joe Turner, had offices on the first two floors, but he owned the building outright and lived in the third-story apartment.

Zack unlocked the door and reset the security code before leading her toward the elevator. She shivered slightly, and he pulled her close again. Genuine concern for her negated the leap in his pulse at the nearness. “I  should have grabbed a cab instead of letting you get chilled.”

“I’m fine,” she replied as the elevator door closed, enveloping them in a dimly lit cocoon of intimacy.

Then she surprised him by slipping both her hands under his jacket to encircle his waist. Fire licked his flesh. She shifted against him, and he wrapped her in his arms again. When she pressed her face to his chest, he sunk a hand in her hair to hold her closer. Her warmth and softness seeped through his shirt, adding fuel to the fire already simmering in his blood.

Her head rested below his chin. He dropped a kiss on her crown, inhaling deeply of the sweet, seductive scent of her. It filled his senses with sharp pleasure. She snuggled against him and his breath faltered, along with his good intentions. He struggled to reinforce his defenses.

The ping of the elevator reaching his floor was followed by the slow yawning of the doors. Zack reluctantly eased his hold on Meredith and ushered her a few steps to his apartment. He unlocked the door and held it open for her. When he reached to secure the inside lock, he heard the gentle swish of her coat hitting the floor. Before he could flip the light switch, she’d flattened her hands against his chest again and pressed his back to the door.

“Meredith?” he questioned gruffly, settling both his hands at her waist. His fingers clenched on the smooth fabric of the little black dress. He gently kneaded her slender body and felt a tremor course through her. A matching shudder rippled over him.

She eased closer until her breasts pressed against his chest. Their firm plumpness staggered his breathing. Sliding her hands up to his shoulders, she shoved at his sport coat. He shook his arms free and shifted to let it fall to the floor, then brought his hands back to her waist. Her body felt taut and supple beneath the sheer fabric. His fingers clenched convulsively. He sucked in a deep breath.

Her gentle aggressiveness threatened to sabotage his control. Until tonight, she’d never initiated physical contact with him even though he’d made his interest clear from the beginning. He wanted her badly and would gladly accept whatever she felt like giving. But he wondered how much of her uninhibited actions were induced by alcohol.

“Meredith? We need to talk.”

She slowly shook her head, tossing the thick mass of hair before she burrowed her face into the open collar of his shirt. Her lips made a soft, wet foray up his jaw, and he trembled. Goose bumps danced down his spine. She slid her arms around his torso and flattened them on his back. The heat of her touch heated his skin through the cotton fabric. When he felt her teeth nibbling at his ear lobe, all the breath whooshed from his lungs.

“Meri.” His voice sounded low and gruff, with just a hint at the desire churning in him. He grasped her face in his hands and forced her to look at him. In the pale light, he saw a matching desire sparkling in her eyes. Her expression, so raw and needy, made him tremble like an innocent. He wanted her with a desperation that scared him spitless.

Sinking the fingers of both hands into the thickness of her hair, he clenched it tightly and dragged her back to him. Their mouths met and fused in a hot, hungry rush of need. Tongues danced and dueled. Moans mingled. She tasted sweet and tart and savagely delicious. He couldn’t get enough of her.

Tilting her head, he angled his so their mouths could meet in a harder, tighter exploration. The demanding thrust of her tongue set him on fire. He felt the sting of her nails as they dug into his back. Her body rocked against his in primitive demand. When they were forced to catch their breath, they dragged air into their lungs and then their mouths locked again with hungry urgency.

Passion swiftly blazed out of control as their kisses grew more heated. Sounds of intensifying hunger hummed between them. Then Meredith amazed him by reaching to the back of her dress and lowering its zipper. He groaned in an agony of need as the slippery fabric drifted off her shoulders and fell to her waist. He caressed the bare skin of her back, his hands exploring the soft, warm smoothness.

After another deep, hot kiss, she eased her body from his long enough to shimmy out of the dress. He caught a glimpse of black bra and panties before she distracted him by reaching for the buttons of his shirt. Fascinated, he watched her part them one by one. As her fingers touched his bared chest, he drew in a deep, fortifying breath. They needed to slow down before they erupted into flames.

“Meri, be sure.” His gruff words held a note of warning she chose to ignore. Then she stole another drugging kiss and then another, until he got lost in her sexy sweetness. When they needed another breath, they scattered kisses over each other’s faces in a frenzy of need.