Before the man from Dallas could answer, she stopped him in his tracks.
"Not another word," she said, "I don't want to hear it."
"Shayna I am going to win that $50 bet and you all who bet against me are going to pay up."
He put on his ranching gloves which matched his chaps that he wore over his faded blue jeans watching as his best friend rolled her eyes at him.
"Don't be foolish Austin," she said, "You just busted a rib on that car chase and you need to be in bed."
He shot her a surly look.
"Shayna I told you and everyone else who's asked, I'm just fine."
She knew differently but it hadn't been just a rib that had been busted, it had been his heart when his sorry assed girlfriend, Whitney and he had mutually ended their whirlwind engagement. Honestly, she didn't know what he saw in the champagne-haired socialite who did little but cling to him but she had supported his right to make decisions, to even made mistakes and she had agreed to stand beside his bride as her maid of honor while he made this huge one.
Only it hadn't panned out in the end because even though she'd gotten a better offer from a guy she met on the plane to L.A. just before the wedding.
It wasn't just that her change in plans had ruined Austin's big day, it was their incompatibility which brought their relationship to a halt. Not that it had made any sense to her at all what drew the two together. Shayna of course had been the perfect friend even allowing the two lovebirds to patch things up at her house for Pete's sake but now she just sent a silent prayer of thanks to whomever masterminded fate because she realized that Austin and Whitney would only have made each other miserable.
Not long after the aborted wedding, Austin had retreated to his ranch to play with his horses during the day and drink Scotch at night. Two of his old time friends Earl and Stu had flown out from Texas to keep him company and to maintain a watchful eye on him for a couple of weeks before Austin had returned to his investigative work at his partner Ethan's firm. Both Ethan and Max had given him plenty of space to recover in more ways than one.
He promptly cracked a rib or two on his first case back, during a chase and sucked it up until he started feeling winded and still tried to hide it from everyone. Finally after he nearly passed out in the elevator, Shayna steered him to a car and took him to the doctor. The man just stared at Austin because he had seen him hauled into his office before with an assortment of work-related injuries but he said little and after checking him out, told him about his ribs and then handed him a list of what to do and not to do that he knew Austin would never follow anyway.
And true to form, Austin hadn't followed the instructions at all. Earl and Stu had all but given up on him and had called her out as reinforcement for trying to keep Austin from riding his horses. But Shayna didn't come to read him any riot act, because she had been there and done that more times than she could count.
She played hard ball instead.
"Look Austin, you have a choice to make here," she said, "You can get on that ill-tempered horse or you can get back in bed and you'd better make the right one."
His brow arched.
"Why Shayna is that an invitation?"
She just looked at him exasperated.
"No Austin, it's not except that if you bust a gut this time, you're going to have to drive yourself to the hospital."
He shook his head.
"No, I'll just have old Doc Rivers patch me up this time at his clinic," he said, "and get right back on that there horse."
Shayna struggled not to throw something at him, like whatever lay around this tack room. He had crawled out of bed, gotten dressed in his ranching duds to go off and do some crazed thing and all she could do was watch him.
Earl held the antsy horse, a blood bay gelding that looked on the wrong side of a dozen years old and his hide bore battle scars. But Austin's body wore a few of its own, including several surgical scars from where bullets had been removed and a knife wound from a fight. So he figured that made him and the damn horse evenly matched.
Shayna didn't exactly agree because the gelding had a thousand or so pounds on Austin and he could spin, and turn on a dime and throw his heels in the air as he buckled beneath Austin's seat. And Bonkers appeared to have a sixth sense about detecting weakness in his challengers and Austin had yet to be able to fool the old sage. Judging by his stride, she figured she had about 10 seconds to talk him out of this madness.
"Look Austin, this isn't really about the horse is it?"
He stopped walking and turned around to look at her.
"Don't try any of that psychoanalysis on me Shayna ," he said, "I've got a horse to ride."
"Austin, I know that you loved her and you wanted to marry her and that it didn't work out," Shayna said, "but you need to get back into bed and recover from your injury."
Earl and Stu looked him over.
"Yeah he does look a bit peaked, "he said, "Bonkers is going to have him for lunch."
Austin looked crossly at the two ranch hands.
"Is that so," he said, "So how much money are the two of you putting up?"
Shayna just looked at Earl and Stu, shaking her head. Their words of confidence in the horse didn't help matters.
"You're supposed to help him not encourage him to hurt himself."
Earl and Stu looked at each other and Earl shrugged.
"If he wants to bust another rib, let him do it," he said, "It's easy money for us."
That made Austin take two steps closer to the horse and Shayna put her body in front of him.
"Go back and get into bed," she said, "Killing yourself on a horse isn't going to solve anything."
He folded his arms and looked at her.
"Why do you keep trying to get me into bed," he said, "I've never seen this side of you before and I might just take you up on it but first the horse…"
She felt like throwing up her hands.
"Austin, forget the damn horse," she said, "This is about feeling that you're less of a man because a woman decided not to marry you."
"And she decided not to marry you for the very reasons that you believe makes you attractive to women," she said, "that draws them into your orbit."
"My what," he said, " Shayna you're losing me here and the horse's winning."
She put a hand on his chest and he looked at her oddly.
" Shayna why do you care so damn much about keeping me off this horse," he said, "I know what I've been doing. I've been riding more ornery horses than this one since I was a kid."
She knew that but he didn't have a busted rib at the time and he hadn't been nursing a broken heart.
"I care about you Austin," she said, "Even if you don't care about anything but trying to prove you're man enough to tame a bronco."
"I'm not the one who keeps bringing my manhood into this Shayna ," he said, "That's you."
She smiled at that.
"You know what I mean Austin," she said, "I know that you're having a hard time believing that the same profession that is a huge part of who you are could actually make a woman who loves you and that you love walk away from you."
"I love what I do," he said, "I'm not apologizing for it. I couldn't change for her or for anyone."
She saw the pain in his eyes beneath his attempts at bravado and she stroked his face with her fingers, looking at him eye to eye.
"You don't have to," she said, "There are women out there who will love you for who you are and for what you have to offer them."
He thought aEarlut that.
"I thought I finally met one."
She tilted her face.
"Well maybe not yet," she said, "but you will someday and you'll fall in love and get married and you won't care that it took that long."
Something in her voice caught his attention and he left Bonkers with Earl and Stu and followed Shayna to the fence where they both climbed to sit on top of it. Albeit he more gingerly while she proved more agile.
"Sounds like you're after the same thing."
She bit her lip and then she nodded.
"For me, it's men settling down with a woman who's out doing something dangerous," she said, "A woman whose got the scars that I have received as part of that."
"Well we've both been shot at few times," he said, "It's part of our line of work."
"I know," she said, "but sometimes it's hard to share them. To wonder when you finally trust someone to take that step what they'll think when they'll see them."
"If they care about you, it shouldn't matter to them."
"It's a good litmus test for sure," she said, "at least it's been for me. Maybe it's different for a man like you."
Austin didn't really think so. The women that have seen his bullet wounds have either looked surprised or it didn't faze them because they were too preoccupied with other parts of him. Some of them had asked questions about them later on and he told the story behind each one but it had pretty much been casual conversation mostly.
It didn't seem like that way with her. Did she feel she had been judged for them or had some jerk actually done it? Well, he had a cure for anyone who ever made his best friend feel less than the amazing woman she had become and he had some words which came to mind for her too.
" Shayna you got the first one trying to solve the jewel theft case, the second for trying to save me and the third…well you've gotten your injuries trying the people you care about…though each one of them put me through the wringer."
"How do you think I felt seeing you injured in a hospital," she said, "My heart was in my throat and stayed there until I knew you were okay and weren't going anywhere."
Austin knew he had said many a prayer when it had been her on the operating table while doctors tried to save her life after she had gotten injured on a case. He'd prayed for her just as she had for him. And each time, she had recovered just as he had done and gone straight back to working cases.
"It was hard for Jack…the guy I was going with," she said, "We…well you know…and when he saw me, he thought I'd been a mercenary or something like that and asked me about it when all I wanted was to be intimate. It took a while for him to get past that I had lived through what I did as part of my career."
"You broke up with him after a couple of months," Austin noted.
"He wanted a more traditional woman," she said, "One who doesn't make insurance companies nervous."
He chuckled, carefully because of the rib.
"I actually had a woman ask me if I was insured."
"It's just that I understand better than you think what you're feeling," she said, "but I'm learning to put it behind me and have a little faith in myself that I can find what I want…it just might take longer."
He appraised her.
"A woman who's beautiful as you and looks great on the back of a horse," he said, "Maybe I should let you ride Bonkers and charm him."
"No thanks, he reminds me too much of an ex-boyfriend."
Austin wondered which one and then she jumped off the fence.
"Where you going," he asked.
She brushed off her jeans.
"In the house to get something to drink," she said, "if you really want to bust yourself riding Bonkers, feel free to do so but I'm not going to watch."
" Shayna …"
She looked at him sternly.
"Earl and Stu can drive you to the clinic," she said, "If you need to be flown by plane, they can come and get me and we can negotiate a price."
She just walked back to the house without looking back. He looked over at Bonkers, who pawed his hoof in the dirt and snorted at him. Then decided the old gelding had made it this long being ornery, he could wait for another day to bust his chops.
She sat by the pool dressed in her swimsuit, a red bikini with a sheer wrap and a pitcher of iced tea next to her along with a good novel. An hour had passed and there had been no screams from the paddock nor had there been any sirens from any ambulances so she figured Austin had changed his mind about riding Bonkers. But she hadn't seen him since she had walked out on him so maybe he still sat on the corral fence trying to coach himself into climbing on the gelding's back.
Men, she thought shaking her head, always trying to prove they were…men. Austin had proven to be no exception though he went overboard with it sometimes along with the usual suspects who were his buddies he had bonded with usually over some adrenalin rushed sport like sky diving or mountain climbing and then over beers afterward. Fortunately there were also times he didn't succumb to that particular form of insanity and had been able to laugh at the things that didn't come as naturally to him. And that's what made him so damn sexy. At least to her anyway.
Some women were attracted to Austin's rugged good looks, and some to his considerable bank account. Others liked his sense of adventure and his connections to the upper social strata wherever he traveled. But while she thought his body was impressive, she loved him because he felt confident enough in himself to embrace his own frailties and because he genuinely loved women.
Now he had loved a lot of women but only a handful seriously enough to think about long-term and all of those relationships had failed either through fiancées getting killed by maniacs or by walking away from him because of the demands of his career.
Not that her boyfriends had fared much better. She'd had some men she'd loved and lost including one to death. In between like Austin, she had encountered men who felt threatened by her career and its demands on her.
She heard footsteps and saw Austin approaching her, having changed into his swimsuit showing off his incredible physique although his right side had been mottled dark purple from his injury.
"I see you didn't get thrown by Bonkers."
Austin sat down beside her.
"I didn't ride him," he said, "We both decided we could wait another day."
She tried not to show her relief.
"One of you was smart."
"He's got more sense than me," he admitted, "but I agreed."
"You going to swim," she said, "It's a hot day."
And a perfect day to just sit back and watch him glide through each lap in his pool with each confident stroke. Austin had swum laps in the morning when he had spent more time here switching to swimming in the ocean when he went to the beach bungalow.
"I might hit the Jacuzzi," he said, "Want to join me?"
"Did you cool it down first?"
"Yeah," he said, "It should be just about perfect."
And with that, he got out of his chair and walked on over to turn on the jets before stepping into the relaxing waters. The doctor had recommended it for his ribs and Shayna knew she should be pleased that Austin had decided to follow at least one of the doctor's orders.
"Why don't you join me," he said, "It's kind of lonely in here."
She looked at him dubiously.
"You're keeping your swimsuit on right?"
After all, he had spent many an hour in the Jacuzzi here naked as the day he had been born. She had long grown used to it, not that she hadn't ever peeked. I mean what woman could resist and she never called herself a saint. But she tried to be discreet about it.
"I promise I won't take it off."
"Austin, I wouldn't want to deprive you…"
"Just come and join me," he said, "and will discuss it in here."
She took off her sheer wrap and after stretching her arms over her head, went to step into the swirling currents that hit just the right temperature on a hot day. They sat directly opposite from each other and she leaned back and closed her eyes, enjoying the heat from the soon and the swift coolness of the water around her body. Austin just watched her, thinking about how beautiful she looked and how much concern she had shown towards him since his injury…no actually since his broken engagement with Whitney.
But then she had always been there for him when he needed her as he tried to be there for her.
"It's really nice," she admitted, "How your ribs feel?"
"Just fine…there's nothing really wrong with them."
"Austin, you broke them…"
"Cracked them," he corrected, "There's a difference."
"Well the doctor said horses are off limits either way," she said, "You might not care but some of us would hate to see you puncture a lung."
" Shayna you really don't need to worry," he said, "I can handle myself cracked rib or not."
"You were about to get on the back of old Bonkers," she said, "Maybe you should have done it so he could have knocked some sense in your head."
She didn't sound that upset with him, just irritated.
" Shayna forget about that for a moment," he said, "Enjoy the Jacuzzi, isn't it relaxing?"
She had to admit that yeah, the water felt great the way it enveloped her body which had been filled with tension ever since she had gotten up and had heard he had left his bed and had set out to get on that damn horse.
"Austin...you're going to get past this," she said, "You know you will and somewhere out there, is a woman who will accept you for who you are and love you. And in your case, there's probably a flock of them."
"They just want a good time," he said, "I was looking for more with Whitney."
She rubbed her shoulders trying to get the kinks out of them and he noticed.
" Shayna …why don't you let me help you with that?"
His tone made her wary. She wondered if he wanted her to drop her guard so he could persuade him in his decision to do something else dangerous and even reckless to escape his heartbreak. After all, it had only been a matter of months since the wedding that never took place.
"With your shoulders," he said, "You look so tense. Did I really do that to you?"
She rolled her eyes.
"I'm fine Austin and no, you did nothing but worry me with your behavior," she said, "I do care about you and I don't like to see you hurting even though I know it's part of life."
"I'm over Whitney and I realize marrying her would have been a mistake," he admitted, "but believe it or not, I do want to settle down and have a family of my own some day but I don't want to give up my investigative career to get there."
She started to laugh and he looked at her quizzically.
"What's so funny?"
"Oh Austin, you sound just like me," she said, "I have the same struggles that you do, figuring out how the hell I'm ever going to balance a husband and children with my chaotic lifestyle."
"You know what I mean," she said, "We work all hours of the day…and night and we travel on a dime to anywhere in the world and the hours at the office and…"
She hesitated with the next part but he figured it out.
"And explaining to my wife why I spent so much time with this gorgeous partner of mine."
She smiled, pleased by his words but his words definitely resonated in other ways.
"Tell me about it," she said, "It's hard enough to explain to my boyfriends my relationship to you and to Ethan which is both quite simple and very complicated."
"Sounds like we both have the same problem."
"Maybe…but after your aborted wedding with Whitney, I started doing some thinking that I'm going to figure out how to make it work…I'm going to make time in my life to find someone and settle down a bit."
Austin's jaw dropped
"You're kidding…but Shayna.. ."
She narrowed her eyes.
"But…what…look I'm still going to be as committed to the agency as I've always been," she said, "I just want something more in life."
He nodded, digesting that.
"And you know every time I've faced death, you know been lying in the hospital from one bullet wound or another, I really feel it keenly that I want my own family."
He heard wistfulness then, because he knew she had no blood relatives left and had lost her parents at an early age. He had lost both of his parents including most recently his father but he still had an uncle and a cousin.
"We'll always be family no matter what."
She smiled again.
"I know…but I want a husband and some kids some day and I'm not sure how much longer I want to wait…I mean I saw what both Kylie and J.D. went through to rope their men."
That had been true and both she and Austin had been very happy that their business partners had all hooked up with each other. But here he was, sitting in a Jacuzzi with his friend who had on a very nice bikini and his ribs didn't even ache today.
"I'm right here," he said, "and I'm about to offer you a massage because your muscles are just screaming for it."
"Maybe…but I meant what I said," she said, "In fact, I'm working out the timeline right now."
He did hear a tone of urgency in her voice and didn't know where that came from. She was still very young and had years to get down to business but something clearly had been on her mind.
"Six months from now I'm going to be in a relationship that's going somewhere."
His brows rose.
"Wow…you don't waste any time."
She inched closer to him.
"I might just take you up on your massage," she said, "At least your exes like Candy the massage therapist have left you with some very useful skills."
He moved closer to her and began rubbing her shoulders, which were indeed very tight under his fingertips. He softly rubbed the surgical scar from a bullet she had taken for him, which had faded in the past year.
"So you going to just keep your eyes open or are you going to advertise," he said, " or any of those sites."
She wrinkled her nose.
"No, I'm just going to ask my friends if they know a guy and if he'll fit my criteria list."
"You have a list?"
"Oh yes, Austin, I did a spreadsheet and everything," she said, "In fact, I could give a PowerPoint presentation on my mission."
He scratched his neck.
" Shayna something's missing here…"
She opened her eyes which she had closed after his wondrous fingers had incited her into a state of bliss.
"Like spontaneity, like when two people meet and want to get to know each other," he said.
"Austin, I'm not interested in a fling," she said, "Been there, done that and I'm ready for something better."
He pondered that.
"Six months…a lot could happen in that period of time," he said, his mind working.
She smiled as his hands hit a sensitive knot of muscle in her back and smoothed it out fiber by fiber.
"That's nice…and Austin it's true, but I've decided to be a master of my own fate and put together a schedule."
He sighed. Whatever had influenced his friend to take this path had to be something significant.
"You're going to have them lining up, because I can't think of a woman who…"
"Yeah well, there's the risk of getting too close to them and losing them," she said, "or having them turn out to not be what you thought."
Ah, her list of exes had left its indelible mark on her.
"Loving someone always carries risk," he said, "I've learned that lesson too but you shouldn't let that happen."
"True…but what about you," she said, "What do you want to do in the next six months?"
He gently lifted her hair and rubbed the nape of her neck, enjoying that task too much. Damn, if his long-time friend didn't have soft skin and her hair…well…back to rubbing the tension out of her shoulders.
"I don't think I'll be getting married," he said, "So what is your list of requirements for prospective candidates?"
"Well…that they're honest, that they've got good hearts and they're not any of the following, murderous sociopaths, control freaks, and anyone who's jealous of a woman who has a great male friend."
"That sounds good," he said, "but what about careers, hobbies, and all that absolutely critical stuff?"
She pursed her lips.
"I want a man who loves what he does so much he can't bear to leave it but he's not married to his job and I like men who like well outdoor activities like camping, hiking and horseback riding. He's got to love horses…"
"And dogs of course," Austin said, "because when it really gets serious, he's going to have to meet Fred and Ginger."
She laughed because they were Austin's two Labrador Retrievers.
"Of course…that. And a sense of humor to help him get through the rough patches and a soft touch, got to have good hands…"
He hit a sensitive spot in her neck.
"Ah yes…like that…"
His eyes sparkled.
"How about indoor activities?"
Her face flushed nicely.
"Austin…that's a little personal don't you think?"
"But it's very important in any relationship let alone a marriage."
"True…but I think I'll leave that one blank until later on."
"Okay well that's a start," he said, "And it's six months right?"
She looked at him funny.
"Yes…but why is this so interesting," she said, "You don't think it's strange do you?"
He shook his head.
"No..not at all," he said, "sounds like a plan to me. Anything I can do to help?"
She looked at him pointedly.
"I can handle my own personal life but thanks for the massage."
"Any time," he said, "I'm going to get a bite to eat, would you like to join me?"
She considered it and nodded, reaching for her towel. They both stepped out of the Jacuzzi and dried off before reaching for their wraps. She ran the towel through her hair, which hung loosely around her shoulders. He already knew how it felt beneath his fingers.
He wrapped his arm loosely around her shoulders and she leaned against her friend as they headed into the house.
She thought, her new life plan had just begun and she had to keep finding ways to keep Austin off of Bonkers until his ribs healed.
He looked at her thinking.
Six months, and so much work to do.
Because after all, inside his mind, an idea began to germinate into a plan of his own.