Erin smiled at Conor Paxton, the Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden she’d invited along on the annual Thanksgiving trip she chaperoned, as she tried to stop freaking out. She’d spent the entire day telling herself that Conor wouldn’t actually show up, that he was just being polite when he’d agreed to come. But when she’d pulled into the parking lot of the rec center at the University of Texas-San Antonio, he was waiting for her.
And what a sight he was.
Standing next to his beat-up old Chevy pickup with his arms and legs crossed, looking as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Erin knew he was good looking, it was hard to miss, but when he smiled, it completely transformed him. He went from a solid eight on a scale of one to ten, to a twenty.
He was tall, a bit taller than she was. He had brown hair, and brown eyes that twinkled when he was teasing her. His shoulders were broad and the muscles in his arms made it clear he wasn’t a man who sat around eating doughnuts with his law enforcement buddies. He moved with an athletic grace that seemed effortless. Erin had seen him step in and control a drunk man twice his weight at the bar without breaking a sweat.
In other words, he was so out of her league, it wasn’t even funny…but that didn’t mean she didn’t fantasize about him.
Erin had thought her heart would stop when he’d aimed that happy welcoming look her way, but she’d managed not to wreck the fifteen-passenger van she’d been driving and calmly parked.
She’d known Conor for a few months. Every now and then he came into The Sloppy Cow, the establishment where she worked nights as a bartender, with his friends. More often than not, he made a point to stop and talk to her at some time during the night. She lived for those talks.
She wasn’t a very social person. Didn’t have a lot of friends. She was too busy, and too wary, to cultivate true friendships. Between her day job of being a professor at UTSA in the kinesiology department and working nights at The Sloppy Cow, not to mention her background, friends had been hard to come by.
But when Conor started paying attention to her, it felt good. Really good. It had been a long time, if ever, since Erin had felt good about herself. Somehow Conor had broken through all the walls she’d built up. Then one night at the bar, she’d spontaneously invited him to join her on a UTSA-sponsored canoe trip to Big Bend State Park and the Guadalupe River.
She’d been kinda shocked when he’d immediately said yes.
Since then, they’d exchange emails and a few texts. She’d seen him at The Sloppy Cow and, if she wasn’t mistaken, he’d flirted with her. Her. Eat-more Erin. She would’ve thought it was a cruel prank if she wasn’t thirty-five and well past the age where people played mean jokes on her.
She’d tried to ignore the flutter of her heart and had greeted him in what she’d hoped was a normal tone. They’d met at eleven forty-five at night on Thanksgiving Day. The plan was to drive through the night, arrive at Big Bend State Park when the ranger office opened and pick up their backcountry permit, which would allow them to canoe and camp over the next three days.
Erin was responsible for everyone on the trip, including Conor, although she had a feeling the game warden could easily take care of himself. She had the required personal floatation devices for the group, along with extras. She’d inspected the canoes and paddles before she’d loaded them on the trailer. She’d given Conor and the college guys strict instructions on what they could and couldn’t bring, including weight limits. This was the third time she’d done this exact trip, and she knew the river almost as well as the back of her hand.
The drive typically only took six hours, but she could extend it if needed by making pit stops for gas and to stretch their legs, making them arrive just as the ranger office was opening. They’d be on the river by noon and on their way. They’d have two nights to spend in the backcountry, and on Sunday, if there were no issues, they would head back to San Antonio by noon and home by seven that night.
Not too long after she’d arrived at the rec center parking lot, the four college kids who were also going on the trip had joined them. Erin didn’t know them very well, but she’d had two meetings with them in the last month, and was satisfied they weren’t going to give her a hard time. After they’d arrived, she’d searched everyone’s bags for contraband. Not her favorite thing to do, but the last thing she wanted was to have someone bring an unauthorized weapon into Mexico or have to deal with drunk kids because they’d snuck some tequila or other alcohol on the trip.
Happily, she didn’t find anything she shouldn’t have and they were soon on their way. The guys—Alex, Chad, Matthew, and Jose—seemed like good kids. They were juniors at UTSA, except for Alex, who was a senior. They were in the same fraternity, which made Erin a little nervous, as she didn’t have a good history with men and women involved in the Greek life, but so far, they’d been nothing but polite.
The guys were sitting in the last two rows of the van, their bags stacked in the two seats between them, and her and Conor, giving the adults a sense of privacy, although Erin knew if she spoke too loud, the boys would easily be able to hear her.
“I’m really excited about this trip,” Conor told her with a smile.
They’d just turned onto I-10 and had at least five hours to go before they headed south on State Road 385. Erin smiled back at Conor. “I’m glad. I’d hate to think you were dreading it.”
He chuckled. “Are you kidding? I not only get to spend three days outside enjoying nature, but I get to do it with a pretty woman by my side.”
Erin knew she was blushing, but tried to blow off his words. He didn’t mean them, he was just being polite. She knew exactly what she was and what she wasn’t. “You spend a lot of time outside, huh?”
As though he knew his words had made her uncomfortable, Conor went on as if he hadn’t paid her the best compliment she’d had in a really long time. “Yup. Perks of being a game warden. I put a good amount of miles on my work truck, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
“What do you do? I mean, I know you’re a game warden, but I’m not exactly sure what that entails.”
Conor slouched down in his seat and crossed his legs at the ankles. He settled in, getting comfortable, then said, “Basically, I enforce all Texas Parks and Wildlife rules. I’m also a state peace officer as well. I provide testimony in court when needed and can arrest someone for breaking the law just like any other police officer can. I help with emergency management operations in regards to natural disasters, conduct investigations of hunting licenses…making sure people hold the correct licenses to be fishing and hunting.”
“Wow,” Erin breathed. “I had no idea. I guess I thought you just worked with animals.”
“Well, I do, but it’s a lot more than that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrested people who were camping or fishing for DUI or marijuana possession. They think that just because I’m a game warden, I’m not a real police officer.”
“You like it.” It wasn’t a question. Erin could hear the pride and excitement in Conor’s voice when he was explaining what his job entailed.
“Yeah, it’s amazing. Some days I can be tromping through the woods looking for a poacher. Other days I’ll be sitting in court, and still other days I’ll be chasing down leads on who shot and killed a bald eagle. I admit that I decided to apply to the academy after I graduated from college simply because I couldn’t imagine sitting behind a desk all day, but now that I’ve been doing this for almost fifteen years, I have a newfound respect and affinity for wildlife.”
“Fifteen years? You don’t look old enough.”
“I’m thirty-five,” Conor told her. “And if you wanted to know how old I was, you only had to ask.”
“Oh, I wasn’t trying to pry,” Erin told him, horrified he might think she was digging for information.
“I know you weren’t. It was my awkward way of wanting you to know.” He shrugged. “And I figured if you knew how old I was, you wouldn’t mind reciprocating.”
Erin glanced at Conor out of the corner of her eye. Was he flirting with her? She saw his eyes glued to her and a smile on his face. Yup. He definitely was. Feeling out of her depth, but for once liking the feeling, she said, “I’m also thirty-five.”
“How long have you been working for UTSA?” Conor asked.
Erin tried not to stiffen. She wasn’t used to talking about herself. Taking a deep breath, she told him the basics. “I graduated with my undergraduate degree with a double major of kinesiology and education. I worked as a middle school gym teacher for a while, then took some time off, went back to school, got my master’s degree, and was hired by UTSA. I’ve been there about four years now.”
“And you love it.”
“Is the pay really so bad that you had to take the second job at The Sloppy Cow?”
Erin shrugged and tried to play off the question. “Not really. But I like to be busy.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. She didn’t need the money. The salary from her teaching job at the university was plenty for her to live on, but she didn’t like to be by herself in her apartment. She knew it was weird. For someone who didn’t have any close friends, she sure spent a lot of time away from home. But she had her reasons.
“I get that,” Conor said easily. “There are days where I’m around people from the time I start work to the time I get off shift. I want nothing more than to go home to some peace and quiet. But then I get home and sit down to watch TV and realize how bored I am.”
“What do you do when you get bored?” Erin asked, genuinely curious.
He shrugged, and she thought he seemed a little self-conscious. “Usually go for a run.”
“You run?” Erin asked, surprised, even though she shouldn’t have been with how in shape he was.
“Yup. Love it.”
“We should go together sometime.”
Erin’s breath caught in her throat. Did Conor just ask her out? She decided to play it cool. He was probably just being polite, and working out together wasn’t exactly a date. Was it? “Cool.”
“You do any races?”
She nodded. “Yeah, usually just 5 and 10Ks. I’m not really into the marathon thing.”
“Me either. I figure there won’t be a time when I need to run for twenty-six miles to get away from any kind of animal. Being able to run fast for one or two miles is more likely,” he said, grinning.
“Do you have to run from animals a lot?” Erin asked with a tilt of her head.
He chuckled. “Nope. I’ve learned to read them way before that happens. Besides, there’s no way I could outrun most of them. Although it has come in handy when I have to get away from a mama skunk protecting her babies.”
Erin laughed quietly, ever aware of the guys in the back of the van. She could hear them snoring from all the way in the front seat. It was dark outside and it felt like she and Conor were in an intimate bubble in the front of the van. “You ever do triathlons?”
“Yeah. I prefer the straight runs, but I’ve done one or two. I can’t stand being wet from the swim and having to jump on a bike. I tend to get chafed, if you know what I mean.”
She did. She so did. After the last triathlon she’d competed in, her inner thighs were rubbed raw after the bike portion and hurt for a week. “Yeah, it sucks.” She smiled over at him once more.
They talked about nothing in particular for the next couple of hours. Erin had never felt so comfortable with a man before. Some of it was the darkness of the night, but she knew most of it was simply Conor.
She’d felt the same way when they’d spoken at The Sloppy Cow. He was polite, funny, and seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say. She didn’t have a lot of experience with men, but she was pretty sure her interest in him was returned. It was a heady feeling for a woman with her background.
She remembered one incident at the bar when they were talking and a gorgeous woman in a tight miniskirt and a blouse that showed off her…assets, had walked right up to Conor and leaned into his side. She’d pressed her tits against him and put her hand on his arm.
She’d asked, “Buy me a drink?”
He’d stared at her with a look of disgust so plain to see on his face, Erin took a step back. “Are you kidding me?” he’d asked acerbically.
“You looked lonely. I thought you might like some company,” the gorgeous, but apparently clueless woman had responded.
Conor had pried her hand off his arm and taken a step away from her even as he said, “First of all, I’m not lonely. I’m talking to Erin. Secondly, if I wanted your company, I would’ve asked for it. And thirdly, if I was going to buy anyone a drink, it’d also be Erin, but I know she doesn’t drink while she’s working. So why don’t you run along and find someone who’s remotely interested in what you’re offering.”
“You aren’t interested?” the woman had asked with raised eyebrows.
Instead of being mean, which Conor totally could’ve been, he’d simply said, “No.”
“Your loss,” the woman had said, shrugging.
Erin had frowned at Conor when he’d turned back to her, and blurted, “Why did you turn her down? She seemed like a sure thing.”
He’d stared right into her eyes as he’d leaned his elbows on the bar, getting closer to her, and said, “In case you missed it, I was talking to you. I’m not looking for a one-night stand. And the only sure thing I’m interested in, is you.”
She’d been so flustered that he’d apparently chosen her over the incredibly beautiful woman, Erin hadn’t said a word. She’d merely turned away and started to make drinks as if he hadn’t just blown her mind.
Her being flustered hadn’t seemed to faze him though. He’d continued to talk to her when she wasn’t busy and by the end of the night, she’d almost forgotten the incident. Almost.
Shaking her head and forcing herself back to the present, she said, “I’m going to stop and get gas in about five miles.”
“You want me to drive for a while so you can get some sleep?”
“Nah, I’m okay,” she told him. “I took a long nap earlier today, so I’m good.”
“You sure?” he asked.
Erin nodded. “I’m sure. But you should get some sleep. You look tired.”
“I am. Worked seven days in a row to be able to take this weekend off.”
Erin’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yup. Thanksgiving is generally a busy time for us. We’re at the tail end of duck season, and deer season started this month. When people have time off work, they tend to get outside if the weather is nice.”
“Yeah, we’ve had an unusually mild fall this year,” Erin agreed.
“And I spent today with my family,” Conor continued. “My mom outdid herself with the spread this year.”
Erin nodded, even though she wasn’t exactly sure what he meant. She couldn’t remember the last Thanksgiving meal she’d had. Okay, that was a lie. She’d been eight. The last holiday she’d spent with her dad before he’d left. She cleared her throat and made small talk. “You’re close with your mom?”
“Yup. My parents are the best. They’ve been married for forty years and act like newlyweds.”
A pang of jealousy swamped Erin, but she beat it down and asked, “You have any brothers or sisters?”
“Two sisters,” he replied. “Younger. They’re busybodies, but they mean well.”
Erin swallowed hard. “You sound like you’re close.”
“They’re everything to me,” Conor said easily. “They were pains in my butt growing up, but at two and four years younger than me, I did my best to look after them.”
“And they were there today?”
“Of course. It’s Thanksgiving. Karen is the youngest at thirty-one, and she’s not married yet, although if the way her boyfriend was acting is any indication, it’s gonna happen sooner rather than later. And Mary, my other sister, was there with her husband and two kids. They’re hellions, but they make holidays fun.”
Holidays were miserable for her, so Erin couldn’t compare what he was talking about to anything. “Hmmm.”
“You spend the day with family before or after your nap?” Conor asked.
Just the thought of her mother made Erin’s chest tighten, and a feeling of being inadequate swamped through her. Every time she thought about her mom, she felt that way. She shrugged. “Nope. I don’t have any family. I spent the day preparing for the trip, making sure I had all the forms required by the university, and getting the van and canoes ready to go.”
Erin felt a warmth on her arm. She looked down in surprise and saw Conor’s hand lying atop the long-sleeve T-shirt on her forearm. “I’m sorry. If I’d known, I would’ve invited you over. My mom would’ve loved to meet you.”
“I don’t really do holidays,” Erin blurted, then winced. It sounded bad when she said it out loud. “I mean, since it’s only me, it’s just silly to get all wrapped up in them. I usually work or do trips like this. It lets the other faculty members spend time with their loved ones.”
Conor’s hand tightened and he said softly, “I’m officially inviting you over to my parents’ house for Christmas then. No one should be alone at Christmas.”
The long-ago Christmas when she was eight flitted through Erin’s head, and she gave Conor what she knew was a pathetic smile. “There’s the exit. You want to try to wake up the guys?”
He stared at her for a long moment before squeezing her forearm in the sweetest gesture, then nodded. “Sure. I can do that.”
As if he knew she was thanking him for dropping the subject of Christmas, Conor slowly brought his hand up to the side of her head and brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “You’re welcome.”
Then he turned and roused the boys in the back of the van.
Erin took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the road. She could still feel Conor’s light touch. It had been so long since she’d been touched with such gentleness.
He’s just being himself. He’s so far out of your league it’s not even funny. He wouldn’t want to be anywhere near you if he knew how you used to look. That you can’t sit down and eat with his family. That you’re a thirty-five-year-old virgin. Don’t read anything into his actions, Erin. You’ll just set yourself up for heartbreak.
Her mini pep talk done, Erin eased the van and trailer into the gas station. Once they got to Big Bend, she could concentrate on getting the group ready to go rather than how Conor made her feel. Asking him to come along on the trip was the worst idea ever.
Part-time bartender Erin Gardner is friendly to everyone who bellies up to her bar, including the local law enforcement and firefighters who keep her city safe. That’s where she meets game warden Conor Paxton, a regular who asks to join a canoeing trip she’s leading for her university day job. When the trip leads to something more, Erin couldn’t be happier.
Conor adores Erin, more than enough to help her continue to get over lingering self-esteem issues from her childhood. He’s thrilled he’s found someone who enjoys spending time in nature as much as he does.
Just when the couple thinks they’re on their way to a happily ever after, Erin finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there’s no way she’ll just lay down and die. She’s woman enough to save herself—and lead her man to her when she’s done.
Justice for Erin
New York Times Bestselling Author
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