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All I Want for Christmas (Biggest Prize Ever) [MultiFormat]
eBook by Starla Kaye

eBook Category: Erotica/Fetish Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: All I Want for Christmas is one of seven stories in the Cowboys In Charge anthology from Black Velvet Seductions. Krystal loved the bad-ass bull rider, but she wasn't into sharing Ryan with all of the rodeo bunnies who lusted after him. She'd spent too many years living for his visits home. It was time to move on and find someone she could depend on to be there all of the time.

eBook Publisher: Black Velvet Seductions Publishing Company, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2012

All I Want for Christmas
(Biggest Prize Ever)

Ilovehim.Ilove him not.Ilove him. Krystal twisted the stem on the apple, doing her own version of the plucking of petals in the time-honored tradition of determining if she loved Ryan Evans. Okay, so she cheated and pulled the stem out before it was ready to come out on its own.

She did love the bad-ass bull rider. The problem was so did most of the rodeo bunnies that hovered around him at each and every rodeo he rode in. She wasn't into sharing.

Handing the apple to Rebecca, she heaved a frustrated sigh. "What am I going to do about him? Yes, kicking him in the nuts when he comes home again is an option." She saw in her mind's eye the latest photo on his website. There was Ryan grinning as always, with his arms around two gorgeous women after his last rodeo, she fought back tears. "What happened to 'You're the only woman for me'? I'm pretty sure I didn't misunderstand the words he said the last time he was here."

The beloved Palomino he'd given her for Christmas last year chomped on the apple but remained otherwise silent. But then Rebecca adored Ryan...like every other female--no matter the species--on the darn planet. The problem was she loved him, too. She didn't want to.

Her older brother, Ryan's best friend, had warned her not to. Her mother adored his charming side, but had cautioned her against a bad boy like him. And her dad...well, he'd sworn that if she started seeing Ryan again after he'd broken her heart this summer, he'd take the brush to her bottom like he'd done when she was a rebellious teenager.

She looked around the big, warm barn where her father housed his prized breeding horses during the winter. He was all gruff talk for the most part and she doubted he'd actually paddle her, but the idea did make her have second thoughts. Not that she intended on getting involved with Ryan again when he came home this week to see his folks for Thanksgiving. She might love him, but she wasn't stupid.

The large double door at the other end of the building slid open and a blast of cold air swept inside. She turned at the interruption and found her mother in the doorway. Even from here, Krystal could see the worry on her mother's still unlined face. "There's a call for you on the main line. It's Ryan." She hesitated. "I can tell him..."

That I don't want to talk to him. Her mother's words went unsaid, but Krystal understood them. She shook her head and moved toward the phone on the center post in the long aisle. It was one of the only land-lined phones remaining on the ranch. "I'll talk to him."

"I should have told him you weren't here."

"It's okay, Mom." As she picked up the phone, her mother gave her a regret-filled look and left the barn, closing the door behind her. Her mother was probably right that she shouldn't talk to him, but...

"Hello, Ryan," she kept her tone as casual as she could manage.

"Damn, darlin', it's good to hear you again." His familiar, sexy-as-hell voice made her body purr in pleasure. It always had, or at least since she'd fallen in lust over him almost ten years ago at sixteen. After being his lover off and on these last few years, her reactions to him were even stronger. She ached in places she shouldn't, desired him with every foolish fiber of her being.

She let his comment go. She was a bad judge of when he was serious anymore. The man was an easy-going flirt with any woman near him. "I heard you're coming to see your parents this week. Your mom has been cooking up a storm, making all of your favorites.According to what she's told my mother, that is."

"She's always determined to fatten me up." He sounded pleased and amused. "I can't wait to see them. You, too. Especially you."

She'd heard the change in his tone, the fading of amusement. If she hadn't seen the gazillion pictures of him with one pretty young woman after another plastered on every rodeo site she followed trying to keep up with him, she might have believed him. She really needed to get a handle on this obsession she had for him. It kept her comparing every man she dated to the handsome blond cowboy. Including Todd, the widowed banker she'd gone out with more than anyone else. Most of those she'd dated were solid men, settled in the community, who would make great husbands and good fathers. But none of them were Ryan. Pitiful. You're just pitiful.

"I'm going to be pretty busy," she said flatly, hoping he didn't hear the sadness in her voice. She needed to be strong, resist him this time.

The problem was that they'd had good times together. He made her laugh, made her feel special. He saw beyond the simple second grade teacher she was, drew out the sensual woman inside her. But he'd never said anything about a future together. He never talked about anything but the next rodeo, nothing about his life after he stopped the circuit. That line about her being "the only woman for him" had just been one of his lines to make her feel good. She was certain of it. After all, if he'd been serious, wouldn't he have kept in touch with her? Sent her an email once in a while? Facebooked her? He had a huge following, of which she--foolishly--was one.

He'd been quiet while her mind had wandered. Maybe he'd disconnected and she'd missed it. "Are you still there?"

"Yes, just thinking." He hesitated and then asked warily, "Are you upset with me?"

Maybe he wasn't quite as clueless as she'd thought. But

she didn't want to get into a deep conversation, really any kind of conversation. "No. I just have a lot of things to do. Family dinner, of course, tomorrow. Papers to grade. School stuff." The school work was under control, but he didn't need to know that.

"Can't you squeeze in at least a little time for me? I'm only going to be here for a few days. I won't be home again until Christmas."

He sounded almost hurt, like he was begging. Odd. But she was wary of giving him an inch, fearing he'd grab for a foot. She'd learned the hard way that if you gave him what he wanted, he took it and more. Especially when it came to letting him have a simple kiss. Kissing him had led to him stripping her before she had known what was happening. It had led to him laying her out and feasting on her--not that that had been a bad thing. All of this he repeated every time they were together because she couldn't resist him. Every time he left her totally boneless and so content she never wanted to move again. The man was DANGEROUS in big-time capital letters.

"Please, darlin'," he prodded. "I really need to see you."

As always, she weakened. With a defeated sigh, she said, "I'll meet you at Sal's Pizza Place at noon on Friday. Take it or leave it." Then for clarification--for him? for her?--she added, "No sex this time. I mean it. Pizza or nothing."

"I'll be there." He hung up before she could chicken out, and she wondered if he knew she had been considering just that.

Ryan waited anxiously in a booth in Sal's Pizza Place in Middleton, Kansas. He hadn't been in here since high school, but the place hadn't changed a bit. The tables scattered around were mismatched, as were the chairs. The clock on the far wall always seemed to be off, since Sal didn't get around to adjusting it to daylight savings time. His wife, Connie, had put on quite a few pounds, but her attitude hadn't changed. She still mothered everyone who walked in the door. Including him.

"You need more meat on your bones," she said, sadly shaking her head at him. Then she followed his glance to the door. "Expecting someone?" She grinned in mischief. "Our sweet little Miss Krystal?"

He already knew everyone in town adored Krystal Carter. His mother told him every detail about what was going on with Krystal whenever he called home. She volunteered for anything that needed help with around town. She sang in the church choir, "like an angel." But the latest news he'd received was that she'd been dating a lot this summer, particularly a widowed banker. A revelation he'd heard yesterday at Thanksgiving dinner. His mom had reluctantly told him this and he'd felt sucker-punched. She was his girl! Evidently she didn't understand that, but he'd always thought it was a given.

The door opened and this time when he looked in that direction, he saw the woman he loved. His heart skipped a beat and he smiled in relief. He'd been worried that she might not come. He hadn't seen her since May, when he'd been in town for Mother's Day. Damn, he'd missed her.

She gave a weak smile and headed toward him. His stomach tightened; his palms were sweating. You'd think he was on his first date, worried about impressing her. He'd known Krystal all her life and known since she'd turned sixteen that some day she'd be his forever. Sure, she'd dated in high school and in college. They'd talked about it. He hadn't wanted her to miss out on the dating experience. He hadn't liked her hanging out with other men, even if he hadn't led the life of a saint while working the rodeo circuit over the years. But he'd never gotten seriously involved with another woman because in his head and heart he already knew he would end up with Krystal. And she'd never shown any real interest in anyone besides him. So he'd been okay. Until now.

She'd thrown a kink in his plan by getting serious about another man. It was supposed to be him. Always only him.

"Hi, sweetie," Connie said and helped Krystal off with her coat. "I'll give you two a few minutes to decide what you want." She walked away, but not before she looked worriedly at him.

"Pretty as ever," Ryan said, taking in everything about her as he always did. He meant it, too. There had never been a woman prettier, at least not in his biased opinion.

She'd let her chin-length hair grow out, now it fell in soft auburn waves over her shoulders. Shoulders that appeared tense. Actually she looked stiff all over, distant. This was so unlike the way she usually reacted when they got together after being apart for a month or two. But he suddenly realized he hadn't seen or talked to her in six months. Six months? No wonder she was pissed at him. How the hell had he let so much time get by him?

She eased into the other seat and focused on folding her coat just right instead of looking at him. "Are you leaving tomorrow? Or this weekend?" She glanced at him and took the rolled-up silverware and started unrolling it.

Unable to help himself, he reached across the table and gently touched her hand. She jerked it away, her eyes flashing fire at him. "Honey, what's wrong? What did I do?"

"Hmmm, let me see...." She leaned back far enough he couldn't touch any part of her. "You tell me I'm the only woman in your life, then you forget about me. You flirt with every rodeo bunny that crosses your path."

"I do no such thing," he protested, glancing around the partially-filled restaurant at her raised voice. Okay, maybe he flirted a bit, but he'd not done more than that. He'd been tempted many times. Some of those young women could be pretty insistent. "I didn't cheat on you."

She dared to roll her eyes at him. "Yeah right. I've seen the pictures on your website, on your Facebook page. You out celebrating at some bar after yet another win."

"I don't lie." Damn his frequent rodeo traveling companion. Toby was into all of that Internet stuff, not him. Toby had created both the website and the Facebook page for him. He'd hardly ever even looked at it. But he knew there had been pictures taken many times. He never thought much about them. "They're only photos. Nothing more."

She gave an unladylike snort. Her eyes looked teary and she drew in a shaky breath. "You're a highly sexual man. I can't believe you've been celibate since the last time we were together."

That she thought so little of him bothered him, a lot. He might not be the best man around or even really worthy of someone as smart as she was, but he didn't cheat. He'd made a commitment to her and he'd stood by it. Did she know you made a commitment to her? Had he actually said it? He thought he had, but maybe he hadn't. Still, she should have known he was serious.

He frowned. "Don't be like this, darlin'. Trust in me. I haven't changed. I'm still the same man you've known and loved."

She set the silverware aside and waved Connie away as she approached the table. As the older woman walked off, Krystal met his gaze. "That's the problem, Ryan. You've been an outrageous flirt ever since you were a teenager. You're a natural-born charmer. I've been charmed, too. But I need more than a man who is in and out of my life whenever he damn well pleases."

His stomach knotted just like it did when he climbed atop a bull. Fear always threatened to make him climb right back off, but he never did. He wasn't a man who gave up easily. And having her in his life was a hell of a lot more important than winning yet another buckle. It was time to take the next step in his life. He'd already discussed it with his folks, not about him getting married, but about him settling down.

He sucked in a breath and looked straight at her. "I'm giving up the rodeo life. My last ride will be in December."

Her eyes widened and then doubt slid over her face. "Every time you've been injured you've said you were quitting. Then you heal up and go right back to the circuit."

"I wasn't ready, not really ready, before." He understood her reluctance to believe him, wasn't sure he could convince her. He'd clearly "called wolf" too many times already. "I mean it, darlin'. I'm coming back to start taking over the ranch. Mom and Dad want to retire to Florida. They need to. Dad's health won't let him keep on ranching much longer."

He thought about how different his dad had seemed yesterday. Arthritis had nearly crippled his hands and knees. Pain etched his face. He was a proud man and the idea of no longer being able to work the ranch like he'd done all of his life was killing him. Ryan had to step in and be the man they needed him to be. And he needed to support his mom as she dealt with all of these changes. He wanted to be a responsible son, wanted to prove to them--and clearly to Krystal--that he was more than just a bull rider. Hell, he was getting too damn old for riding bulls anyway.

Sadness replaced the irritation in her expression. She started to lean closer and reached out for him, but then pulled her hand back. "I've known your dad's been having health problems. I just never... Well, I don't think any of us around here ever imagined him giving up the ranch. I'm sorry."

"Me, too." He swallowed hard. Seeing his dad failing like that had been difficult. He closed his eyes for a second before looking at her again. "I need you, more than ever. And I've always needed you in my life."

She shook her head, wariness in her gaze. "I don't think that's true. I've always been there for you when you wandered back home for a few days. I've been your friend...and your lover...of convenience."

She blinked back tears, and he could almost feel the hurt he saw in her eyes. "I can't go on like this anymore." She grabbed her coat and scooted out of the booth. "I'll be your friend, I could never stop being that. But I can't be your whenever-youneed-me lover anymore. I just can't."

"Krystal, please..." He let the plea fade away. Wrong place, wrong time. But he was not giving up on her. He couldn't.

He was trying his hardest not to grab her and pull her to him while she tugged on her coat. Then instead of walking off, she surprised him by leaning down and giving him a quick kiss.

It shook him clear to his bones. God, how he'd needed that.

But his pleasure was short lived. Regret filled her eyes as she said in a trembling whisper, "Everyone has always warned me away from you. I never listened. Dad even told me the other day that he would take the brush to my bottom if I got involved with you again. He won't have to, because I'm not."

Ryan looked steadily at her. "Maybe I should give you a spanking. For being so pig-headed stubborn, for not believing in me."

She straightened and glowered down at him. "You've done that a few times over the years. But trust me, cowboy, it's never happening again."

He watched her storm across the restaurant, watched the sweet sway of her hips in the skinny jeans. Damn but she had a great ass. He'd definitely be taking her over his knee again. There was nothing he liked more in life than a challenge. Now he faced a lot of them, but he was confident he could meet them all. Leaving the rodeo would be hard, but his body was more than ready. Taking over the ranch would be a definite challenge, but he could do it, had always known he would one day. The challenge that mattered most, though, was proving to Krystal that he could do all of this...and that he loved her with all of his heart.

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