He was paying the price for losing his temper. The image of Paige, wearing nothing but an oversized tee and a look of determination, was forever branded in his brain. So was the way she’d struggled to reload the heavy shotgun—the same one Nelson had aimed at him earlier in the day—to ward off the snarling coyotes charging the dilapidated fence. Austin admired her resolve to protect the flock, but what intrigued him the most were her innocence and beauty. Those and the kiss, still searing his psyche, that she’d placed on his cheek.
The gangly, freckle-faced, braces-wearing girl with the scarlet ponytail he’d seen nearly a decade ago was long gone. It was a miracle he’d even noticed the preteen back then. If Paige hadn’t been walking down the sidewalk that summer day, holding Raymond’s hand, Austin wouldn’t have ever known she existed.
He was well aware of her now. Hyperaware, in fact.
When he stepped inside his house, silence greeted him as usual.
After spending sunup to sundown every day with his siblings and dad, solitude had been a blessed companion. Not anymore. The stillness he once treasured to relax and recharge had become a mental battleground…a war between desire and denial.
Even now, as he flipped on the lights and climbed the stairs to his bedroom, Austin’s focus was on the neighboring ranch, wondering what Paige was doing. Was she fixing dinner? Eating dinner? Cleaning up the kitchen? Watching television with the old bastard? Or was she alone in her room, thinking about him like he was her?
His ache for Paige had gone from temptation to obsession. Which made zero sense considering they’d spent a whole whopping fifteen minutes together. He’d blame it on love at first sight if he believed in such shit. He didn’t. Maybe it was lust at first sight. Was that really a thing? It would certainly explain the constant clawing hunger for her. He’d felt something similar to this when he was young and stupid. But it had been a dull ache. His desire for Paige was sharp and undisciplined, wholly unlike anything he’d experienced before.
He needed to get his head back on straight, needed to focus his time and energy on the ranch again. Keep his attention on designing new ways to grow the herd and make more profit, not simply go through the motions and work by rote like he’d been doing the past two weeks.
His fixation with Paige was affecting his daily life.
How the fuck did I let that innocent beauty climb beneath my skin in fifteen fucking minutes? How?
With a scoff, Austin roped in his libido. He prayed his feelings were one-sided, because if they weren’t, God help them both. They’d go up in flames.
But what a spine-bending blaze it would be.
As he stepped into his room, Austin’s gaze skimmed the bed. Images of Paige, naked and writhing beneath him, charged his brain. His cock woke and swelled to attention. Cursing, he closed his eyes and tried to will the vision away. It wasn’t happening.
“I am not jacking off again tonight,” he vowed.
After stripping down, he stepped into the shower, doing his best to ignore his throbbing erection. But after he’d lathered up with soap, it became a war of wills to keep from fisting his shaft to get some relief. Agitation was still crawling under his skin as he dried off. He had to find something to focus on besides Paige. Sadly, he wouldn’t find it here, alone in his house, the barn, or back inside his dad’s kitchen. He needed a distraction other than family.
Then it hit him.
Combing his hair, he strode from the bathroom, then quickly dressed in a pair of black jeans and a black tee before heading out the front door. Four minutes later, he pulled up to the Hangover Bar and strolled inside.
The sight of Paige, wearing a pair of sexy cowboy boots, a barely legal halter top that cupped her plump breasts like a lover’s palms, and painted-on jeans hugging the sensual curves of her swaying ass as she danced to an Alan Jackson tune with local EMT Cody Tanner, stopped Austin in his tracks.
A whip of jealousy cracked through him, searing his veins and making him want to punch Cody ugly. It didn’t matter that the paramedic was closer to Paige’s age than he was or that Cody was known as an upstanding guy. Like himself, the man had a dark side…a shared interest, Dominance. Cody, along with a few other residents of Haven and a couple of Austin’s own brothers, was also a member of Cravings. The thought of seeing Paige at the club with Cody, of watching him unleash his inner sadist after cuffing her to a cross or bending her over a spanking bench or even putting his fucking hands on her, sent flames of rage licking Austin’s spine.
The images were still scraping his brain when Paige tossed her arms in the air and twirled.
Their stares connected.
Desire thundered and rolled through him as her hazel eyes widened before her arms slowly floated to her undulating hips. As she raked a slow, sultry stare down the length of his body and back again, lethal levels of testosterone spilled into his system. But when she flashed an innocent smile, swiped her pink tongue over her bottom lip, then bit the plump flesh between her teeth, he nearly moaned.
Austin didn’t know if she was purposely taunting him or simply unaware of the seductive power she possessed. He wanted to believe the latter, but…one thing was certain, the frazzled, helpless damsel he’d encountered two weeks ago was long gone. So was the sassy, scolding spitfire he’d witnesses on Raymond’s front porch. Was her new demeanor alcohol induced? Maybe, but Paige didn’t appear to be drunk. Her eyes were clear and sparkling like diamonds as she boldly undressed him with them.
Not that he minded. Turnabout was fair play. He hadn’t stopped mentally stripping Paige naked and violating her a million different ways every time he saw her. And if the coy, provocative smile on her lips was an indication, Paige liked what she saw. When Austin arched a brow, daring her to admit that fact, she realized she’d been busted and lowered her gaze as she dropped her chin. Her gesture was so blatantly submissive, he nearly swallowed his tongue. Long seconds passed before Paige peered up at him from beneath long, dark lashes. The naughty minx flashed a taunting smile, rolled her hips, then twirled to face Cody again.
You’re playing with fire, little girl.
Austin suspected she knew that, just like she knew he was still standing behind her while she swayed her heart-shaped ass from side to side, purposely teasing him. Austin itched to pluck her up, turn her over his knee, and ignite her ass with a burn she’d never forget. But two very important things stopped him. First, they were in public. Second, it would incite World War Three between their families.
Peeling his eyes off her backside, he forced a placid smile, then strolled across the hardwoods. He nodded to Billy Jansen, one of Colton’s ranch hands, then Sawyer Grayson—who was cozying up with the linoleum sisters, Sylvia Dreyfus, Annette Sommers, and Gretchen Kingman—before greeting his dad’s longtime friend and owner of Dresher Hardware, Willie “Bubba” Dresher. From the back of the room, Donald Jankowski, owner of Balance Your Bubbles Tax Prep and Laundromat, tossed an arm in the air and waved. Austin smiled and nodded before snagging a seat at the bar, one that gave him an unobstructed view of the dance floor…and Paige.
Gina Scott, the sassy, no-filtered, mid-thirtysomething bar owner, greeted him with a bubbly smile. “Well, well. Look what the wind blew in. How ya been, Austin?”
“Can’t complain. Well, I can ’cause I’m real fucking good at it, but it doesn’t do any good,” she quipped with a laugh. “Want your usual?’
As Gina filled a frosty mug from the tap, Austin glanced around the room for Old Man Nelson. He didn’t see the crusty bastard anywhere. Did he know his gorgeous young granddaughter was in the bar, grinding her goods on the dance floor with Cody? Doubtful. Well, at least not yet. The gossip guild would remedy that by morning.
After Gina placed the mug in front of him, Austin thanked her, took a sip, and glanced at Paige.
“It’s good to see her having so much fun.”
“Who?” he asked, playing dumb.
“Oh.” He stoically nodded. “I must be getting old. She looks too young to be in here.”
“She’s not.” Gina chuckled. “She turned twenty-two last month.”