Intro: Reformed Hollywood bad girl Whitney Winslow has come to Valentine Valley to open an upscale lingerie store, Leather and Lace. Since cowboy Josh Thalberg agreed to create unique leather necklaces for the store, Whitney was persuaded to help him as he negotiates to sell his leather shoulder bags to an Aspen boutique. To his surprise, the owner wants to take his photo to advertise his work.
Josh propped one hand on a display table and leaned toward her. “If I agree with this, you have to agree to a date.”
Whitney hesitated, looking deep into his green-brown eyes, at half-mast like he’d just woken up after a pleasurable night in bed. He hadn’t shaved, of course, and she knew with the cowboy hat he’d be even harder to resist.
So why should she bother resisting? It was just a date, and she’d gone so long without a guy as to be baffling. But she didn’t want to give in quite so easily.
“You’ll only do this great promotion if I agree to being blackmailed?”
“Blackmail?” he countered, all innocence now. “All I asked was a reward for giving in to this silliness.”
“Oh, all right,” she huffed. She walked toward the counter, calling, “Geneva?”
The woman came out immediately, already carrying her camera, as if she had no doubt of their answer. She’d hung something made of black leather over her arm.
Josh arched a brow, but only said mildly, “I’ll agree with your plan, as long as I like the photo.”
Geneva grinned. “I knew you’d see it my way if only because it’s harmless promotion. Can we have one of your bags for the photo shoot? That would be perfect. And here’s a leather vest. I thought it would…complete the look.”
Josh took it and examined it critically, as if making sure there were no beads or sequins. “Seems okay.” He removed his jacket, then slid the vest on over his white, buttoned-down shirt.
“And the hat,” Geneva prodded. She glanced at Whitney absently. “Can you get the shoulder bag?”
Josh jingled his car keys. “I’ll get it.”
“No, let me,” Whitney insisted. “You two need to strategize.”
“Strategize?” Josh echoed doubtfully. “Don’t I just smile, and we’re done?”
Geneva glanced up from her camera. “I’d like to take a few different poses. And I think you need to unbutton another button or two.”
Smiling, Whitney went out the door, holding it for two well-dressed women who went inside. By the time she returned, there were several other women as well, from teenager to geriatric, all discreetly watching as Geneva moved display tables away from the original brick wall and fireplace mantel.
As she handed the shoulder bag to Geneva, the woman’s eyes went wide, and she fingered the soft leather, carved with delicate swirls along all the edges. Understated and elegant, Whitney thought.
And then she glanced at Josh, all masculine cowboy, leaning casually against the brick wall like something out of an old Western movie. The black vest brought out the white of the shirt, his tanned skin, and made his eyes luminous. Whitney felt her own pulse take a leap and knew that the other women in the store had shown equal interest.
But none of them were going to go out with him.
So now she was feeling proprietary—and even smug? Good Lord.
But she stayed back and let Geneva bring her vision to life. She hung the shoulder bag from an old-fashioned coat stand to the side, near his midtorso, then snapped a few photos of him lounging against the wall, arms folded across his chest, eyes glimmering with amusement. More than once, he met Whitney’s gaze, and she felt the tug of his masculinity. She wasn’t immune to the fact that this handsome man was interested in her.
She’d experienced that plenty of times, of course, but Josh was different than the wealthy and educated businessmen she usually favored. He was part of the outdoors, a man of the land and family heritage, who provided food for the whole valley and beyond and took pride in it. He worked with his hands, and none of the men in her past had. The two of them should have nothing in common—but it didn’t seem to matter where her libido was concerned.
She heard a click nearby, and turned her head in time to see one of the teenagers snapping another quick photo of Josh with her phone. Whitney wasn’t the only one affected by him. It reminded her of those days eight years before, when her fame for her scandalous underwear had caused the original owners of her lingerie store to name an exclusive, expensive line after her. They’d wanted her to model them, and she’d refused. But now, seeing the power Josh had over this small assemblage of women, had she been right?
Geneva soon had him sitting in a chair, and when she suggested he unbutton his shirt all the way, Josh’s gaze went straight to Whitney’s. She thought for sure he’d refuse, but never breaking their contact, he slowly undid the buttons. When Geneva suggested he lean his elbows back behind him, the shirt gaped several inches, showing the lines of his abdominal muscles, the dark hair scattered across his chest. Whitney couldn’t look away, couldn’t pretend indifference as her heart thumped heavily in her chest, and the sound of rushing blood filled her ears.
The room had gone silent, but for the jazz music. Even Geneva had stopped talking, placing the shoulder bag on a table near Josh’s side. He wasn’t smiling now, and she didn’t ask him to, only gave quiet commands so that he’d turn his head, or look out from beneath the brim of his cream-colored Stetson.
Geneva suddenly glanced at Whitney, and her distracted gaze focused on her. “That white coat is perfect. Come here.”
Bemused, Whitney started to unbutton it, and Geneva shook her head.
“No, keep it on. Wear the shoulder bag, and stand off to the side. Don’t worry, we won’t see your face.”
Was she supposed to be relieved? It was hardly flattering. But as Geneva positioned her, then had Josh glance to the side as if watching her as she wore the bag, Whitney understood the image. She told herself it was only the bag he was staring at, but she was so aware of him, she almost felt as if he’d taken her hips in his hands—as if he had thoughts of what he intended to do. Part of Whitney obeyed commands, while the other part imagined what Josh was thinking.
When at last Geneva said she was done, and Josh hastily stood up, Whitney took her first deep breath in what seemed like hours. He was still watching her, wearing the faint smile of a man who understood what he did to her yet wasn’t immune to the charged atmosphere that simmered between them.