“Again, my apologies if I came off too forward, ma’am.”
Ava cringed at the sound of the sweet Southern drawl punctuating his confession. It wasn’t the way he said it, but the title with which he chose to address her.
Ugh! Ma’am is for proper older ladies. She was neither proper, nor old—at least she didn’t feel old. Mature, maybe, but not old.
“What’s with the face?” He leaned over the stall gate, and the cords in his neck tightened. Her gaze drew past the collar of his plaid Western shirt onto what she imagined to be warm, smooth skin. “Did I say something wrong?”
Her eyes met his, and she turned to mush. Looking into his crystalline eyes made her heart yearn for the tenderness of a man’s sympathetic gaze. It had been a long time since she’d looked into the eyes of a handsome man. Far too long…
Ava quickly glanced away and shook off her ridiculous emotions.
Buck up, Ava. Don’t let this green cowboy fluster you.
She straightened her back and stood her ground. No tantalizing tadpole was going to refer to her as old. “I’d rather you not call me ma’am.”
He drew back and furrowed his brow. A cocky little smirk inched up the corner of his mouth as if he enjoyed her sudden feistiness. “My mama always taught me to be polite when talking to a woman, no matter how bad I wanna kiss her. So until you tell me what your name is, I’ll be forced to continually unsettle you.” He leaned closer. “And just so we’re clear, I’d rather say things to arouse you.”
Ava wasn’t prepared for that comeback and could barely get past “how bad I wanna kiss her.” Was he serious?
She shoved her hands in the pockets of her jeans so he wouldn’t see her shaking.
“Ma’am?” he prompted. “Your name?”
Ava blinked repeatedly and forced herself back to reality. She looked at Jonas slouching with his elbows resting on the gate, his hands folded. The unabashed confidence he portrayed in his casual posture was more than she could handle. Younger or not, he was clearly more experienced in flirtatious dialogue.
“I’m sorry. My name is Ava. Ava Wallace.”
He stood up straight and tipped his hat, his smile as broad as an arena barn. “Pleasure to meet you, Ava. Now, since I already struck a chord with you, I reckon I’ll strike another.”
“Your horse. You seem pretty partial toward him, and I get that. If you’re in need of a backup for the show this week, you’re welcome to use mine. In his prime, he was a trick mount, but I bought and trained him to be a cutting horse. It’s been about five years since he’s galloped in a pen, but he’s as sound as they come. He’ll run like mad till you tell him to stop. Bomb goes off? Won’t flinch a muscle. Dead broke.”
He stroked the stubble on his jaw, and her attention zeroed in on his large hand. Ava imagined he probably knew a thing or two about pleasing a woman with those strong, beautiful hands and how she’d give anything to be that woman.
“Obviously, you’ll want to test him and see how he does running the pattern, but I’m thinking he’ll have you saying ‘hell yeah.’”
Ava dismissed the thoughts of his roaming hands and pretended to be indifferent. “That’s a mighty nice offer, Mr. McKinley.”
“Call me Jonas,” he corrected. “Like you, I don’t care to be called by stiff-collar titles.”
“If you decide to take me up on my offer,” he explained, pointing toward the corrals lining the rodeo grounds, “I’ll be right over there.”
Ava glanced in the direction he pointed. “Got it.”
Jonas tipped his hat once more and strolled away, leaving her to ponder. And stare…
She took in his view from behind and nearly drooled. It should be illegal for a man to have an ass like that.
“Wooo, doggy, I agree. That fine ass should be illegal.”
Ava whirled at the sound of a voice behind her. Her friend and fellow barrel racer, Crystal—or as she insisted, Crys, because the other was just too darn feminine—stood on the other side of the stall, her chin resting on the tops of her hands. Unlike Ava, Crys made no attempt to hide her gawking.
Ava covered her mouth in horror. “Holy shit, Crys, did I say those words out loud?”
“Yes, ma’am, you did.” Crystal quickly looked in her direction and amended her statement. “I mean, Ava.”
Ava rolled her eyes. “How long have you been eavesdropping?”
“Long enough to know his mama taught him right and he’s dying to kiss you.” Crystal giggled. “Or arouse you.”
Ava shook her head and bent to check on Ranger’s hoof. “Obviously, your mama never taught you right.”
“Ah, now don’t get your knickers in a bunch. I’m not gonna tell anyone that you got the hots for Mr. Sweet Ass over there. And you do, so don’t deny it.”
When it came to Crys, nothing slid past her. She came from a long line of bull riders, which meant she took no bull from anybody. A lie to her was as easily detected as a skunk in roses. Ava also knew the woman had loyalty, given they’d traveled the rodeo circuits together for over eleven years.
She recalled on one occasion how Crys had punched some cocky bull rider square in the nose for a degrading comment he made toward a young newbie barrel racer. He thought he was a big shot in front of his friends. Crys thought he needed to be put in his place.
Ava almost laughed, remembering how he’d mounted a longhorn steer the next day wearing a face-guard helmet. While it wasn’t uncommon for a bull rider to protect his face from fracture in a competition, this guy never did—until that day. Irony was often a gifted comedian.
“So, what are you gonna do about McKinley’s offer?” Crys asked as she spread shavings in her stall.
Ava lifted Ranger’s leg and pulled the bucket away, ready to salve and Vetrap the hoof. “I don’t know. It sounds pretty dangerous to me.”
“Are you talking about the man’s horse or his kiss?”
Ava contemplated the question. “Both, I reckon.”
Crys threw down the last of the shavings with a very devious grin. “I can’t speak for using a man’s horse, but I don’t think a kiss ever killed anyone.”