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THE END OF SUMMER vacation is always bittersweet, but this time the mixture of my emotions is particularly potent. The metaphorical taste on my tongue is bitter because nine months of a school year lies yawning before me and sweet because it will be my last one. Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up a senior at Moon Crescent High School in Robeton, South Carolina. Home of moonbeams and lofty dreams that rarely, if ever, come true.
This long awaited milestone should be filled with anticipation and celebration. For me, it’s a painful reminder of being all alone in this crazy, topsy-turvy world. One minute, I was a princess being doted on by a big, strong military man I called Dad and a graceful, classy and demure lady I called Mom. The man I thought was invincible was blown to bits two years ago by a defective explosive during a routine bomb-diffusing exercise. My mom, along with some of the soldiers on my Dad’s squad, suspected foul play. But no one could prove a thing. Several lawyers and a mountain of debt later, I learned you can’t fight Uncle Sam. Unfortunate accidents like the one that destroyed my world were often covered up and easily swept under the rug like a long-forgotten dust bunny.
Mom and I had become empty vessels drifting across stormy waters without the loving husband and father who had been the anchor of our little family unit. A man who will never be forgotten as long as there is breath in my body.
In the aftermath of his death, my mother literally lost herself. I no longer recognized the woman who raised me. Gone was the well-put together, fashionable and funny lady whom my dad had daily put on a pedestal. In her place was a sloppy, intoxicated shell who shed her shyness beneath a chemical-induced haze. She traded pretty, floral dresses and baking brownies for slutty, skin-tight pants and one-night stands.
On the first day of June, she took off with a shady, greasy-looking traveling salesmen who was wearing a rumpled suit and a bad toupee. She left me standing in our driveway—the one my dad paved himself—with a look of shock in my big, brown eyes and tears streaming down my face. As the sleaze-bucket with a Slim Jim bobbing between his lips pulled away, she lowered the passenger-side window and sang with a slur:
Done laid around, done stayed around this
old town too long.
Summer’s almost gone, winter’s coming on.
And it seems like I’ve got to travel on.
And it seems like I’ve got to travel on.
Suffice it to say, she ruined Bob Dylan for me. Since I didn’t have the luxury of losing my mind or traveling on, I got a job with the Outlaw Rodeo. All the riders dress up like famous outlaws from the Old West. It’s their shtick and a huge draw for the clamoring crowds.
After the new high school was built, the town let Billy the Kid Yele set up camp on the old football field. Bull-riding and calf-roping is a big source of summertime fun in our sleepy southern town. My dad had been a big fan of westerns, and going to the rodeo was one of our favorite things to do together. Working here makes me feel closer to him.
The last night of the rodeo is winding down, and so am I. The fans have dispersed. The parking lot is almost empty. A few stragglers hang around to chew the fat with sweaty, dusty, exhausted riders who are anxious to get back to their trailers.
Billy makes his way over to me as I lean back against the bullpen, propping the heel of my cowgirl boot on the bottom rail.
Looking worn out, he says, “If you’ll hold on a tick, little lady, I’ll get your pay.”
I can’t help but smile at his long, lazy drawl. “I’ll be right here.”
He tips his hat and heads in the direction of a beat-up camper, doubling as his office and sleeping quarters. I’m going to miss him and the others. This isn’t my first rodeo, but it will be my final one. Next summer, if my plans pan out, I’ll be in Italy.
While waiting on Billy, I spot a stranger who looks completely out of place among the dirt-floor arena, leather saddles and bales of hay. He is the exact opposite of the rough-and-tumble cowboys I have worked alongside for the last three months. This man has the whole tall, dark and handsome thing going on. He has paired black penny loafers with navy slacks and a stark-white dress shirt. The crisp sleeves are rolled to his elbows, showcasing the sexiest, hairiest forearms I have ever seen. His outfit is the furthest thing from rodeo attire I can think of.
With his full, firm-looking lips slightly parted and his head down as if he were concentrating on his every step, he is headed straight toward me on a collision course I have no desire to stop. Letting my boot slide off the rail, I lock my knees and brace my body for impact.
Like a countdown to a missile launch, I silently tick off his last few steps. Three. Two. One. Crash.
The second his muscular shoulder slams into my sleeveless one, I teeter sideways. Before I can grab hold of the rusty-orange rails, his sexy, tanned hands become brackets of steel on both sides of my hips, steadying me.
His deep, baritone voice feels like a lover’s caress. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
SHIT! I KNEW GOING out tonight was a big mistake. When I’m under this kind of stress, I should always stay home. Out of the public eye. Away from my fellow man or woman, as it were.
I was driving to a coffee shop when I saw the arena and heard the roar of the crowd. My eyes were drawn to the motes of dust and dancing moths beneath the stadium lights. While they hypnotized me, I had nearly hit a telephone pole head-on. Now I have carelessly plowed into a young, curvy goddess in snug-fitting jeans and cowgirl boots while I was studying the various-size footprints in the dry, red-clay dirt.
I feel tongue-tied when she speaks. “I’m fine, mister. But you really should watch where you’re going.”
Her southern accent is intoxicating. With my hands still locked firmly on the flare of her hips, I nod and say with all the bravado I’m not feeling, “Tell me your name.”
She blushes, and it’s one of the sweetest yet sexiest things I have ever witnessed.
“Like the flower.”
“Yeah, only I’m not nearly as pretty.”
“That’s a damn lie.” My tone is too insistent and unyielding. I have to make a concerted effort to soften it lest she think I am some kind of lunatic. “I meant to say, the way your beautiful body blooms beneath the moon makes you prettier than any blossom I’ve ever seen.”
Swallowing hard, I do my level best to tamp down the intensity vibrating through my veins. I really should turn around and walk away before I do something I’ll regret. Or worse, something she’ll regret.
She smiles and gives her hair a flirty flip. The whole fucking world tilts on its axis. The warmth of her breath flutters across my face when she whispers like she’s sharing a secret. “That might be the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
Entranced, I quietly watch as she bites her bottom lip before giving me the gift of her voice again. “You must be new around here. I haven’t seen you before.”
I clear my throat but, at this point, nothing can clear my mind. Silently, I command my hands to release her, but they don’t obey. “I got into town a week ago.”
“You just passing through, or are you planning on staying a while?”
I step closer, knowing the mere bulk and presence of my body will push hers even harder against the thick, metal rails of the bullpen. All I can think about is bucking her like a wild bronc.
“I start a new job tomorrow. I guess you could say I’m putting down roots here.”
She sighs. “In that case, welcome to Robeton. We may not be the friendliest town in the South, but we come pretty dang close.”
I can see the glint of teasing in her beautiful, bourbon-brown eyes. A soft, soulful color a man can quickly drown in.
The attraction between us is sparking with an electricity more powerful than a high-voltage cattle prod. I’m most definitely the aggressor, but this young woman has given no indication my nearness is unwelcome. Her dilated pupils and breathy sighs are giving me the green light, and it’s all I can do not to slam my foot down on the accelerator.
Trying to drag in a deep breath through the heat and heavy humidity of an August night, I say, “Violet, if you don’t push me away right now, I’m going to kiss you until you faint.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Who are you? Rhett Butler?”
“No. I’m Rhett Calder, and the need to taste you is more than I can endure. This is your last chance to say no. To scream. To slap me in the face.”
“Or knee you in the balls.”
“Both your feet are still on the ground,” I say, glancing down at her cute, cowgirl boots.
“So they are,” she says, smiling sweetly before teasingly licking her bottom lip and tilting her head to the side.
The time for talking is definitely over. Fisting my hand in her shimmery-blonde hair, it takes every shred of my willpower to barely brush my lips against hers. All I really want to do is devour her. To drink the sweet nectar from her lips until I am no longer thirsting to death. Her pretty mouth opens on a feathery, feminine sigh. Tightly-bottled control snaps like a fucking rubber band being pulled past its limit.
My hips thrust forward in sync with my tongue. She accepts the intimate intrusion, not submissively but as an active participant. As our lips, teeth and tongues meld in a mating ritual more animalistic than I could have imagined possible, her fingers grasp at the back of my shirt, plastering the sweat-soaked material to my scorching-hot skin. I cup her ass, dragging her forward like some archaic caveman who has no command over his cock. Her sex sears mine through the fabric barrier of my slacks, making me groan. I’m two seconds from ripping off every stitch of her clothing when I hear a gruff, countrified voice.
“Is this man botherin’ you, Violet?”
To my surprise, she playfully pushes me away and says, “I’m afraid I was the one molesting him, Billy. Working with you hayseeds fifty hours a week didn’t leave much time for a summer fling. I figured I was at least entitled to a kiss before real life reared its ugly head again.”
The cowboy chuckles. “I reckon there’s no harm in a little smoochin,’ just so it’s consensual. Did you ask this fella’s permission before ya’ll locked lips?” he asks, handing her an envelope.
She takes it and stuffs it into the back pocket of her Levis. “I didn’t get anything in writing, but he didn’t seem to mind too much,” she says, winking.
Billy tips his hat at us. “You two youngsters don’t stay out too late. The mornin’ comes mighty early.”
THE RELENTLESS LIGHT OF morning stabs my eyes through the slightly-parted blinds of my bedroom. Getting ready for school is the absolute last thing I want to do. I couldn’t fall asleep until well after three in the a.m. for thinking about Rhett Calder. About his hands on my hips. About his tongue in my mouth. About his massive, hard-as-granite erection pressed against my jeans-clad pussy.
The man was a walking dream. One I was positive I had conjured up when he practically disappeared into thin air. One minute Billy was handing me a week’s wages, and I was tucking it into my back pocket. The next, I looked up to see the sexy silhouette of Rhett’s backside as he ran off into the night.
Glancing at the alarm clock, I sigh with relief. Despite my forgetting to set it, I have still awoken around six-thirty. If nothing unforeseen happens, I should get to class with time to spare. Throwing my thin comforter back, I untangle my legs from the sheets and make my way to the bathroom. I still haven’t gotten used to the sound of my lone footsteps in this empty house.
My mom has been gone for three months now. Not once has she called to check on me. Shortly after she left, she sent me a postcard from Mexico. I have no idea if she and the slimy salesmen are still slurping tequila and eating refried beans on the beach or if she has moved on with a swarthy Mexican stud, salsa dancing until dawn.
Truthfully, I don’t care what she is doing. Why should I? She doesn’t care about me enough to even pick up a phone. If my dad were still alive, her behavior would kill him all over again. Of course, if he had not been blown into a million pieces, she would still be a model mother and ideal housewife. Life sure can be a bitch sometimes. But it can be positively perfect at other times. Like last night, when a handsome stranger came to the rodeo and kissed me until I got lightheaded and my knees knocked together from weakness and excitement.
Out of my limited wardrobe, I choose a black dress with pink polka dots. It’s the last outfit my dad bought me, and I need to feel he is close by as I start the final chapter of my high school career.
After all, the first day of a girl’s senior year is pretty significant.
Since Dad passed away, I’ve packed a few more pounds onto my already plus-size figure, causing the silky material to cling a little tighter to my curves. Still, I feel fairly satisfied with my reflection in the mirror. Wanting to look extra special, I decide to add a few final touches—a faux pearl bracelet and matching necklace, sheer-black pantyhose and black heels—then make my way to the kitchen for some milk and a Pop-Tart. Not the healthiest breakfast, I know. But it’s quick, and I need to get out the door.
CLUTCHING MY PHONE IN one hand and my purse in the other, I wince at the loud, echoing clack of my high heels as I run down the hallway of Moon Crescent High. That unforeseen thing I had hoped wouldn’t happen, did. As quietly as possible, I open the door to my first class. I’m so grateful it isn’t locked. Naturally, it squeaks on its hinges, and all eyes turn toward me. Somebody really needs to talk to maintenance and get some WD-40 on the situation.
To my relief, there is no teacher in sight. To my dismay, the only empty desk is located on the front row. I’ve always been a back-row kind of a gal, but beggars can’t be choosers. And I’m just happy as a clam to have snuck in unnoticed. The last thing I need is a tardy. If the school tries to contact my mother, they will realize I am living alone. That is a headache I definitely do not need right now.
Sliding back a bit further in my seat, I cross my legs and take a calming breath. Before I can complete my exhale, a rich, deep, panty-melting and oh-so-familiar voice reverberates through the room.
“You’re late, Violet. See me after class.”
I’m torn between fainting and losing my breakfast. Neither one seems like a good option, so I just sit in my seat dumbfounded, staring at the man I want more than any other. I can tell by the fuck-me-sideways look on his face that he is in shock, too. I can only imagine what’s running through his mind—me. Just like he is running through mine.
Without missing a beat, he pulls up a PowerPoint slideshow on the Promethean Board and begins his lecture on French Impressionist painters like Claude Monet and Gustave Courbet. I’m assuming I missed the Pledge of Allegiance, roll-call and the morning announcements. I had no idea I was so late.
Try as I might, I cannot concentrate on a single thing Rhett is saying. I really should start thinking in terms of calling him Mr. Calder. My mind must have wandered far and wide because the sound of the bell makes me jump so hard, my knee painfully pops the underside of my desk.
As the other students file out into the hallway, I stay glued to my seat. Silently, I watch Rhett—I mean, Mr. Calder—cross the room, close the door and lock it.
When he makes his way to me, he takes me by the arm, pulls me out of my chair, marches me to the front of the room and says, “Hands on my desk. Now.”
My eyes grow wide, but I obey.
“Wh—what are you doing?” I ask, nervously.
“What your parents should have done a long time ago,” he says, lifting the hem of my dress.
My big, rounded ass is covered only by practically-sheer hose. I didn’t want visible panty lines, so I didn’t put on any underwear. I can hear the hitch in his breath when he realizes it. Still, it doesn’t stop him from raising his hand in the air.
My words halt him mid-swing when I say, “I don’t have any parents.”
He drops his arm and the hem of my dress at the exact same time. “What happened to them? Who looks after you?”
I explain everything to him as best I can and finish by saying, “I take care of myself.”
He knifes his hands in his pockets and stares down at his feet much like he had been doing when he bumped into me at the rodeo. Then he snarls, “Doesn’t look like you’re doing too good of a job. You couldn’t even get yourself to class on time for the first day of school.”
Angrily jerking my hands off his desk, I straighten my spine and say, “That’s not my fault. I checked the oil and put gas in the car. I can’t help it if the stupid piece of shit died halfway here. I’m not a mechanic.”
“Watch your language, Violet.”
“I’m eighteen damn years old, Rhett. I can cuss all the hell I want to. I can stay up all night if it pleases me. I can even kiss a total stranger under the stars and make his cock hard as a rock while doing it. But you already know that. Don’t you?”
I hear his breath gush from his chest as much as I feel it. Even though I am as mad as I’ve ever been, the sight of his jaw muscles clenching beneath shadowy stubble makes me wet. The heat and electrical current that was zapping like lightning between us last night at the rodeo hasn’t died out one bit.
He sits down heavily on the corner of his desk, and I know he is as exhausted as I feel. I’m betting he didn’t get much sleep either. Rubbing his chin, he softly says, “I’m sorry about last night. It shouldn’t have happened. We have to put it behind us and forget it. I’m your teacher. You’re my student. As far as I’m concerned, we’re just meeting for the first time.”
I place my hands on my hips, give him my best grown-up look and say, “I don’t think your dick got the memo. As far as it’s concerned, your hands are still filled with my hair and ass cheek. Your lips are still on mine, and we’re still grinding our genitalia together while you push me against the hard, metal railing of the bullpen.”
He closes his eyes as if in physical pain before opening them again. Then he repetitively runs his fingers through his thick, black-as-ink hair. Gazing at me with a silent plea in his dark pupils, he says, “Don’t do this, Violet. What happened between us can’t happen again. I behaved irresponsibly last night. Trust me; I’m goddamned relieved you aren’t a minor, but my touching you in any way is still inappropriate.”
“Watch your language, Rhett.”
“It’s Mr. Calder from here on out. You need to go before you’re late for another class.”
“And you need to go to hell!” I scream, stomping toward the door.
He lunges off the edge of his desk and grabs me by the waist, hauling my back to his front. His cock is hard against my butt. His breath hot in my ear. “I didn’t sleep at all last night because I ran away without getting your last name, your phone number or your address. I know it’s a small town, but I couldn’t bear even the remotest possibility of never seeing you again. So believe me when I say I know you’re hurt. I am, too. You think the idea of not holding you again, tasting you again isn’t fucking killing me? It is. I’m damn dying here. But this isn’t right. I won’t ruin your reputation or my career before it even takes off.”
I jerk my elbow backward into his ribcage, taking pleasure in the sound of his moan as he releases me. Spinning to face him, I say, “That’s what it all boils down, isn’t it? Your precious career?”
“Not entirely, no. This is merely my second teaching job since graduating college. I’m only twenty-four, Violet. Six years older than you, but this community and the schoolboard won’t see us as two consenting adults. They’ll see me as an older man and you as a teenager. You’re not technically jailbait, but you are off limits,” he says, pausing to blow out a harsh breath. “No, I don’t want to have my career flushed down the toilet. I worked hard to get here. But more importantly, I don’t want your reputation to be tarnished. I want to protect you.”
“From everything and everyone. But mostly from me.”
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