Texas Hold 'Em

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By Christie Craig

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“Hold onto your Stetsons . . . A thrill ride of hunky heroes, hilarious high jinks, and heartwarming romance.”
-Lori Wilde, New York Times bestselling author on Only in Texas

A HOTTER IN TEXAS NOVEL

The last thing veterinarian Leah Reece needs is a man in her life. They’re nothing but trouble-and not even the fun kind. But when her apartment is broken into and Leah suspects Rafael, her dangerous half-brother, of foul play, she can’t deny she could use a little help. She just never expected that help would come with twinkling blue eyes and a sexy smile…

All PI Austin Brook wants is to nail Rafael DeLuna, the man who framed him for murder. He’ll do anything for information-even lie about his identity to charm Leah, DeLuna’s half-sister. But her sweet dimples and fiery spirit soon make her more than just his only lead. Leah becomes his every desire. As Austin closes in on DeLuna, it’s clear he won’t go down without a fight. Now the only way Austin can protect Leah is to reveal all of his secrets and risk losing her for good.

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CHAPTER ONE

AUSTIN BROOK OPENED his front door and stared at his two PI partners standing shoulder to shoulder on the front porch. They looked pissed enough to chew glass. He knew why they were here. He even knew why they were pissed. Still, he decided the best approach would be to take a page from his dating manual and do the same thing he always did when he got in trouble with a woman. Namely, feign ignorance and pretend everything was just fine.

"Hey," he said. "What brings you guys by?"

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Dallas O'Connor snapped.

Austin grinned. "Well, I was thinking about taking a piss when someone started pounding on my door."

Bud, Dallas's dog, nosed his way between his owner's legs and stared up with the same bulldog face as Austin's partners at the Only in Texas agency.

The fact that Bud was an English bulldog made his look understandable. Not that Austin didn't understand his partners' dire expressions. He knew they were here to derail his plan.

"I thought you guys were in Galveston." And he was hoping to be gone before they got back. Austin raised his foot and with the toe of his boot scratched the dog's neck between the folds of loose canine skin.

"We came back early. Roberto called us." Dallas, a big man carrying a bad attitude, pushed inside, and Tyler, slightly less bulky but equally tall, joined him. Bud, snorting and probably farting, followed at their heels.

Austin shut the door, then regretted it when the strong odor of doggie gas hit him square in the face. Instinctually, all three men waved a hand to clear the air.

Tyler's gaze, his eyes as dark as his black hair, shifted to Austin's suitcases sitting beside the bar. "I thought we decided to let Roberto handle this."

Roberto was the professional informant they had digging up info on the SOB, DeLuna, who'd framed them. And while Austin liked Roberto, or at least liked what little he knew of the man, he was taking too damn long to get the job done.

"No, you two decided that," Austin said, letting the bitterness shine through in his voice. "I distinctly remember telling you that I was tired of handing everything over to Roberto and getting handed back shit. We're paying this guy big bucks and we really don't know crap about him."

"So far his leads have all been on the mark," Dallas insisted.

"True. But it's been six months since he's given us a solid lead on DeLuna." To Austin that meant it was time for one of them to intervene. And since both of his partners now had wives to consider, he figured it was up to him to do it.

Not that he minded. Taking down that no-good lowlife claimed top spot on his bucket list.

"My bet is by now all of DeLuna's men know our faces," Dallas said. "You go through with this, and we'll be buying your casket in a matter of weeks."

Austin sat down on his favorite armchair and stretched out his cowboy-boot-clad feet. "Just use the one we keep in the entranceway of the office and save yourself some money." The damn casket had been left in the building by the previous owners, who ran a funeral home. Now it was sort of their trademark.

"He's serious," Tyler said, using his calm voice that always reminded Austin of a therapist. Not that he'd gone to one in a hell of a long time. Well, not since he was thirteen and had decided that being a ward of the state didn't mean he had to follow their damn rules.

"You think I'm not serious?" Austin asked. His mind was made up. He didn't mess around with his bucket list.

"What brought this on?" Tyler asked. "Is this about your—?"

"Stop! Quit trying to get in my head." Austin's anger surfaced with a rush. But it was directed more at the stranger who'd shown up at the agency and spilled her dirty laundry right in front of everyone than at his two partners. Still, that didn't mean he had to discuss it. Discussing it meant thinking about it, and he'd spent a whole hell of a lot of energy trying not to do that.

"You want to know what brought this on?" he asked. "It was the year and a half I was fucking locked up in prison. Or have both of you forgotten about that?"

It sure seemed to him they had. Okay, maybe they hadn't forgotten it, exactly, but they'd somehow gotten past it. And while Austin was friggin' happy for them that they'd been able to do that, and he'd danced a jig at both their weddings in the last two months, he couldn't get past it. He wouldn't until DeLuna was behind bars.

Or dead.

Tyler exhaled. "I just think—"

"Then stop thinking!" Austin moaned. The last thing he wanted was to have anyone rummaging through his mental closet. There were too many damn skeletons, too many nailed-shut trunks of emotional crap, that he didn't want to think about.

"Damn it, Austin," Dallas snapped. "This is shit. We need to stick to our plan."

"What plan?" Austin asked. "We don't seem to have a plan anymore."

Dallas's shoulders tightened. "The plan hasn't changed. We keep picking apart DeLuna's organization until we force him to come out of whatever hole he's taken cover in and face us. Use your brain for once. You know as well as I do that we lose every advantage by going to him instead of having him come to us."

"Look, nothing personal, but you two have other priorities right now," Austin said. "As in wives. And I get it. But what he did still eats away at my gut. I want my pound of flesh."

"Roberto is working it," Dallas said. "If you go in now, you'll probably get him killed. Can you live with that?"

Austin raked a hand over his face. When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring at his partners' concerned faces. Real concern. Damn it to hell, he knew they were here because they cared. And yes, he felt the same way about them. If anything, the bond he had with these two was the closest he'd ever come to having a family, but…

"I don't know what Roberto told you," he said, speaking more calmly, "but I've already worked this out with him. I'm not even going to Fort Worth. I'm checking the other lead that—"

"Which lead?" Dallas asked.

"The sister."

"Half sister," Tyler corrected.

"Whatever," Austin said. "They're Latin, and you"—he pointed to Tyler—"know how important family is in that culture."

"She's half-Latin," Tyler corrected again. "And stop stereotyping."

"It's a good stereotype," Austin said. For someone who grew up without a family, he could have used a little of that stereotype in his life. Of course, when he saw how his partners' families drove them crazy, sometimes he wasn't so sure.

"Roberto watched her for a month and found no connection to DeLuna," Dallas added.

"Yeah," Austin replied, "but I'd bet my left nut she knows what rock he's hiding under."

"You could lose more than your left nut. And even if she knows, why would she tell you?" Dallas asked. "Plus, Roberto tried connecting with her and it didn't work."

Austin smiled. "I'm not Roberto. I'm charming. Women like me. It's a gift."

He was just like his biological father… or so his "mother," aka the woman who'd given birth to him, raised him for a few years, and then abandoned him, had said when she'd shown up last week. The brief conversation they'd shared came back to haunt him, but he pushed it aside. He wasn't going to think about that. Nope. So he shoved the memory back into his mental closet.

Only it kept falling out. She'd come looking for peace of mind and ruined his in the process.

"We know the type of women who find you charming," Tyler said. "Leah Reece is educated, and she's part Latin, which means she's too smart to fall into bed with you."

"Now who's stereotyping?" Austin asked. "Besides, I didn't say I was going to sleep with her. I'm going to charm her. Get her to trust me enough to confide in me. And actually, her being Latin works in my favor." He grinned. "We've discussed this before. I go for blondes. Of all the Victoria's Secret models, there's only one brunette I'd pick before I'd sleep with their whole catalog of blond models."

"How the hell did Victoria's Secret models come into this?" Dallas ranted.

"Anytime you can bring them into the conversation, it's a good thing," Austin added with humor. "Besides, I've already worked out a plan. Roberto rented the apartment next to hers. She's a vet, and I'm thinking about getting a dog. I'll buy one, then pop in to see her and say…'Hey, aren't we neighbors?' And, voilà! Instant connection."

"Right," Tyler said. "Once again, you didn't do your research. Leah Reece isn't a regular vet, she's a specialty vet. Special as in a feline specialist. Feline as in cats." He laughed. "I'd pay to be a fly on the wall. You, an ailurophobe, are going to try to charm a feline specialist. I'll bet she owns at least two or three cats."

People owned three cats? "I'm not scared of cats." But it would be a cold day in hell before he acquired one of those clawed varmints. The scar beneath his right arm started to itch.

"So, the vet angle won't work," Austin said. "I'll find a different way." Somehow he'd win Leah Reece over enough that she'd confide in him about her brother. How hard could it be? She was, according to Roberto, a petite, pretty little thing with a soft spot for animals.

"I still don't like it," Dallas said.

"Me, either," Austin admitted, still thinking about the cats. "But I'm doing it."

Monday morning, Leah Reece was busy doing one of the things she did best.

"I swear, you enjoy this, don't you?" Sara, her vet assistant and good friend, teased as she stroked the anesthetized cat on the table.

"Can't you see the satisfaction in her eyes?" Evelyn, the office manager of Purrfect Pet Veterinarian Clinic, added from the doorway.

Leah grinned but didn't look up until she removed the second testicle from the tiny incision and dropped it into the metal container. It landed with a tiny thud in the pan beside its brother ball. "I was just thinking that I'm good at it, but it doesn't bring me the joy you two are insinuating. Now, if Spooky walked on two legs, thought he was God's gift to women, and spewed out come-on lines instead of purring, then it would do my heart good."

They laughed. Then Evelyn cleared her throat. "It's been two years since the divorce. I think it's time you stop dreaming of castrating them all and remember what a man can do for you."

"You mean like cheating on you with your neighbors and running up your credit cards by having phone sex with strangers?" They laughed again. Sometimes even the truth was funny. Or it could be after two years.

Still in the doorway, Evelyn gave Leah her I'm-serious look. Leah adored Evelyn; she'd been the first employee Leah hired three years ago when she started the practice.

She'd known Evelyn was the right fit when Leah asked her if she had any prior office management experience and the fifty-five-year-old answered, "Nope, but I managed to keep a household afloat, take in over ten cats, clothe and feed three boys, and get two through college on my husband's car salesman income. If you need someone who can run a tight ship, balance a budget, knows how to get stains out of men's underwear, and doesn't mind picking up hair balls, I'm your woman. Besides, with the economy down, and one boy still in college, I could really use a job."

Evelyn cleared her throat again, pulling Leah back to the present. "Brandon was an idiot."

And managed to make me feel like one, too. "But he was so good at it." Leah checked Spooky's scrotum one more time.

Sara chuckled. "I think both of us would have helped you castrate Brandon. But Evelyn's right—not all men are scum."

No, Leah thought. Some of them were even worse. Brandon was just the last in a long line of men in her life to disappoint her. First had been her father. Then her half brother. And a few lying-cheating boyfriends along the way. If not for Luis, her younger brother, she'd have given up on the whole male species. But as it was, she would be hard pressed to trust another man. And the only kind she'd let get close were the feline variety that she'd previously neutered.

"Don't you miss it, just a little bit?" Evelyn asked.

"Miss what?" Leah moved Spooky into the cage on a soft mat where he'd wake up. She gave the unconscious feline an ear rub. Hopefully now that he was fixed, she could find him a home. But Lordy, she was such a sucker for a stray.

If only she didn't already have four at home…

"A man's touch," Sara answered for Evelyn, her voice dreamy. "The way the palm of his hand moves over your skin or fits just so in the curve of your waist. The way he looks at you like you're eye candy, making your skin get ultrasensitive. Those sexy bedroom smiles that make you squeeze your thighs together a little tighter. Oh, and that moment when he's naked between the sheets and—"

"Oh, my." Evelyn fanned herself. "I'm calling my Stewart and telling him to come home early." She walked out, her step peppier than when she'd walked in.

"Well?" Sara asked.

"Well, what?" Leah barely got the two words out. Her mind was mush and her body ached for something she didn't think she could ever allow herself to have again. She'd tried it. As wonderful as it all was in the beginning, it cost too damn much. Both emotionally and monetarily. Phone sex didn't come cheap.

"Do you miss it?" Sara asked.

"Nope," Leah lied, and looked down at the removed testicles.

Evelyn appeared in the doorway again. "You have a phone call. He says he's your brother, but it doesn't sound like Luis."




CHAPTER TWO

MONDAY AFTERNOON, AUSTIN waited in his truck for Leah Reece to return to her apartment. His plan was simple. Bump into her, start a conversation, eventually get her to trust him enough to tell him about her long-lost, piece-of-shit brother. If that didn't work, he'd move to plan B.

Problem was, plan B was slightly illegal and could get his ass thrown in jail. He didn't like jail.

He'd concluded that in the first fifteen minutes of his sixteen-month stay.

But it was worth the risk to get to DeLuna—the man who'd put him there.

He frowned. How late did vets work?

According to Roberto's description, the woman was petite, young, and pretty. Which sounded almost as bad as "a good personality." Even if she wasn't some hot babe, she had the young part going for her, so what was she doing working twelve-hour days?

Hell, maybe she left work and went straight to some date. He could be here until midnight. He groaned. Patience had never been his strong point.

A white Honda pulled in a spot across the way. Right color, wrong car, and parked in the wrong spot. Still, Austin paid attention.

A young, small brunette exited the car. Was it Leah? He should've done a better upfront investigation. Tyler always accused him of not being a Boy Scout and being unprepared, and maybe this one time, his partner had a point.

Roberto had sent some surveillance images when he'd done his own Leah Reece investigation, but, pissed when the report stated Roberto had struck out, Austin deleted them.

He continued to study the Honda's driver. She snatched a baby from the back. Damn! Leah Reece wasn't a mom.

Another car engine roared close by. The brunette with the baby stepped away from her bumper at the same time a red Ford Focus came hauling ass down the parking lot. He slapped one hand on the horn and bolted out of his car. The woman, clutching her baby, jumped back.

"Slow down," he yelled at the fleeing car, but he doubted the driver heard him over the music vibrating the windows. The woman nodded a thank-you. He nodded back and crawled back in his truck.

He'd arrived in the town of Heartbroke yesterday and got settled into the apartment. Not that it required a lot of settling. He'd hired a rental company to furnish the apartment on Friday. All he'd brought with him were a few clothes, his laptop, his phone, some basic tools, and Marilyn.

Some guys named their boats, their vehicles, or their dicks. Austin had named his Glock.

Never leave home without Marilyn. He pulled out his gun from the glove compartment. He'd cleaned the weapon twice yesterday to pass time.

Another car engine roared through the parking lot. He set his gun on the passenger seat. When a silver Toyota passed, he flopped back against the seat.

Call him optimistic, but he'd hoped to connect with Leah yesterday—and to have already scheduled a coffee date or something. But she'd stayed locked up in her place. He knew because his apartment was next to hers and he'd kept an ear to the wall half the time.

She'd watched TV and talked on the phone. Not knowing if perhaps she was chatting with her half brother, Rafael DeLuna, frustrated the hell out of him. Hence plan B.

When he'd woken up at six a.m. and didn't hear anything, he'd run to the parking lot, only to find her white Chevy Cruze gone.

On the way to get plan B supplies, he'd driven by her office. Her car was parked in the back. Why couldn't she have been a regular vet? He really liked his original plan of getting a dog. Partly because he was thinking about getting one. He liked Bud, Dallas's dog. Well, everything but the gas bombs he dropped.

Leaning back, he stared at the roof of his Chevy pickup. Boredom already had him by the neck and threatened to choke him. If at home, he'd be working a case or shooting the shit with Tyler and Dallas. They shot a lot of shit.

At first Austin worried about how the two of them getting married might change things. It hadn't. Oh, they didn't joke so much about getting laid, but he respected that. He'd even found a soft spot for his partners' wives. They, of course, were always threatening to fix him up…"with a good girl."

He told them not to bother. He wanted the bad ones.

Another car's engine sounded, and he bolted up. He was ready to give plan A a shot before risking plan B. He'd brainstormed a few approaches to Leah, but they felt forced, so he decided to wing it.

With women, he could wing it. He might not be the genius like Tyler, or have the diplomatic skills that Dallas had, but Austin Brook had charm. The kind women loved.

Just like your daddy. Tensing to the point his shoulders hurt, he remembered the words of the woman who had the nerve to call herself his mother.

As if fate knew he needed a distraction, a white Chevy Cruze pulled past. Showtime. His heart raced as the car turned into the parking spot next to him. The space designated for apartment 212.

He grabbed his phone and pretended to be talking in case she noticed him. She never glanced his way. And he never took his eyes off her. A curtain of thick, dark hair hid her face as she pulled into the spot.

She parked and brushed her hair back. Lots of soft-looking dark hair. He studied her feminine profile, a small nose, best described as perky, and lips that were… pouty. Most women accomplished that sultry, seductive look with the right lipstick.

He could be wrong, but he didn't think she was wearing lipstick.

She pulled her hair on top of her head and shoved something in there to keep it up. With her arms up, he got a glimpse of her upper torso, which included her feminine swell of breasts straining against a pink shirt. He wasn't sure if it was the breasts or the soft cut of her jawline, but it hit. Recognition. She was… familiar. But from where? She turned and glanced toward her backseat, offering him the frontal view of her face.

Shit! His grip on the phone tightened while his other hand locked around the steering wheel. She looked just like the Victoria's Secret model. The one brunette who had him overlooking the blondes. Hell, he'd spent more nights with this woman—in his mind—than he could count.

Was that her? Was she moonlighting as a model? He'd heard some models did that. She exited her car and walked around the passenger side. She wasn't the model.

As Roberto had implied, Leah Reece was petite. The angel he adored from afar who posed in sexy underwear was five feet and eleven inches. He knew 'cause he'd surfed her website—fuel for his fantasies.

He mentally measured Leah as she opened the back passenger door. Maybe five-three. He liked them tall, he reminded himself, when he felt the initial stirring of male interest.

She leaned forward to grab whatever it was in her backseat, presenting him a good view of her backseat—a very nice, rounded ass covered in soft denim. The view had his jeans feeling crowded.

"She's not the model," he muttered to chase away the stirring in his boxers. It didn't work. She's DeLuna's sister, damn it!

His crotch listened to the second point.

She raised up with grocery bags hanging from each hand. His gaze stayed fixed on her as she started walking.

That's when he remembered he was supposed to be bumping into her.

She was already in the front of his car. If he didn't do this now, it wouldn't work. He twisted for the door, and bumped the horn with his elbow. When he looked up, Leah Reece had her arms in the air, and raining down on her were the bags' contents.

Oh, hell. This was not a smooth, charm-her-into-trusting-him approach.

Improvise, his gut told him as he reached for the door. Wing it. Hadn't he just admitted being good at that?

The horn blew. Leah's breath hitched in her throat. Her arms shot up and her groceries went up with them, some escaping from the bags, others crashing to the pavement inside the thin white plastic.

"I'm sorry," a deep voice said at the same time her bottle of cheap Cabernet landed with a resounding crack.

Panic still biting her stomach, she took two big backward steps. When her startled gaze spotted the man hurrying toward her, her need to escape vanished. Blond, apologetic blue eyes, clean-cut. Not Rafael, a calming internal voice whispered. Not Cruz. And not someone who looked like one of her half brother's homeys, either.

She hadn't realized it until now, but the call from her half brother had put her on edge. The alarm tensing her insides faded, replaced with grief—grief for her bottle of Cab.

"Really sorry." He stepped closer. All six-foot-plus of him.

"It's okay." She knelt beside her discarded groceries, embarrassed at how she'd overreacted. She stared at his cowboy-booted feet and not his handsome face. It wasn't this stranger's fault she'd jumped out of her own skin at the sound of a horn. She glanced at the plastic bag holding the wine and saw the red liquid slowly filling the plastic bag. After the day she'd had, she could have used a couple of glasses.

The stranger knelt beside her. His muscled thighs straining against his jeans filled her view. Not wanting to get caught crotch staring, she gazed up at him re-bagging the undamaged goods.

Tongue-tied, she refocused on the plastic bag filling up with wine. Turning her head, she looked to see if the garbage can was still located between the parking spaces. It was.

She reached for the bag with the broken wine, but the good-looking stranger got to it first.

"Let me." Obviously having seen her eyeing the garbage, he picked up the bag and straightened. A piece of broken glass must have poked through the plastic because wine began to squirt out in a steady stream. Bright red Cabernet hit her pink shirt, across her boobs.

She squealed.

"Shit!" He yanked up the bag.

Up, which meant the stream got her in the face. Her eyes started burning. She blinked.

"Damn," he muttered.

She slammed her eyes shut, lost her balance, and plopped back on her butt. She fanned her face, hoping to cool the sting in her eyes. The wine bottle hit the ground again.

She heard him shuffling around. "Here. Take this." Fabric came against her face. "Wipe your eyes?"

She buried her face in the cotton and kept blinking.

"Friggin' hell," he gritted out at the same time the roar of a car's engine and blaring music vibrated the pavement. "That car again!"

Leah felt herself being swooped up. Up into the man's arms at the same time she heard a car zoom closer.

"Slow the hell down! It's a damn parking lot, not a racetrack!" the man bellowed out.

Catching her breath, her body cradled against a warm masculine chest, she pulled the cotton fabric from her face and turned her watery eyes to him. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Probably because she didn't have a clue what to say. It wasn't every day she was doused in wine and swooped up by a hot guy whose crotch she'd just stared at.

He scowled. Yet somehow she understood it was targeted toward the driver of the car and not her.

"Are your eyes okay?" Concern tightened the corners of his mouth.

She nodded and tried to blink away the Cab-induced tears. The fruity smell of berry and oak tannins filled her nose, but beneath that she caught the scent of male aftershave.

Spicy.

Earthy.

Nice.

She took another deep breath. Was the wine going to her head? She looked at the bunched-up cotton she used as a towel and realized it was the man's shirt. And that's when she realized all the warmth surrounding her was skin.

Warm naked skin. Yup, the wine had gone to her head.

She cut her eyes to his bare shoulder. Then, aware of the feel of his arms holding her, his muscled chest, she remembered Sara asking, Don't you miss it? "It" referring to a man's touch and all the sinfully wonderful sensations that came with it.

Like how warm his solid, slightly bulging muscle in his left arm felt pressed against the side of her breast. Like the tingles his other arm sent pressed to the back of her thighs. Even through her jeans, she felt his corded muscles.

Her heart beat to a tune of romance—well, not romance, she didn't know this man; this wasn't romance. This was pure lust. She drew in a gulp of air to sober her thoughts. Aftershave and wine filled her nose, a combo that reminded her of lusty romantic evenings.

"Uh. Can… you put me down?" she managed to say.

"S-sorry." He set her on her feet. "You're so light, I barely noticed I was holding you."

Barely noticed? Just the impression a woman wanted to make.

She glanced at his wine-stained shirt and then down to her wine-stained blouse, which had come unbuttoned and exposed her once white, now Cab-pink, bra. She looked up. His eyes dropped to her chest. She slapped his wine-soaked shirt over her wine-soaked boobs and bra.

Genre:

  • RAVE REVIEWS FOR CHRISTIE CRAIG AND ONLY IN TEXAS:

    "Hold onto your Stetsons . . . A thrill ride of hunky heroes, hilarious high jinks, and heartwarming romance."
    -Lori Wilde, New York Times bestselling author

    "A fabulously great read. I absolutely loved the characters...I can't wait for the next one in the series."
    --Night Owl Reviews

    "Another well-written and nicely plotted story, with great leads in Nikki and Dallas...Christie Craig always delivers enjoyable light romantic mysteries - add Don't Mess With Texas to the list."
    --BookLoons

    "An entertaining tale with delightful, fully formed characters and an intriguing mystery, along with a nod to dog lovers with a likable pooch."
    --RT Book Reviews

On Sale
Jan 28, 2014
Page Count
480 pages
Publisher
Forever
ISBN-13
9780446582827

Christie Craig

About the Author

Christie Craig is the New York Times bestselling author of thirty-nine books. She is an Alabama native, a motivational speaker, and a writing teacher, who currently hangs her hat in Texas. When she’s not writing romance, she’s traveling, sipping wine, or penning bestselling young adult novels as C.C. Hunter.

Learn more at CCHunterBooks.com or http://www.christie-craig.com.

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