Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Teaser Tuesday: His Heart for the Trusting



Texas Hearts Book Two
HIS HEART FOR THE TRUSTING

Ever since Mitch Broader set foot in Texas, he dreamed of owning his own ranch. Now that he’s bought a share in the Double T Ranch, he’s one step closer to the dream. Then his past greets him in the form of a baby basket, complete with infant and birth certificate naming him as the father. He can’t change diapers and work toward his dream at the same time.

When Sara Lightfoot, “Miss Hollywood” in Mitch’s eyes, rescues him with her particular knack for handling his precocious son, he hires her on the spot as a temporary nanny. No matter how much Sara’s dark eyes and warm heart make this bachelor think of making their arrangement permanent, she’s made it perfectly clear she has other plans that don’t include him or his dreams.

Sara Lightfoot never thought she’d return to her home on the reservation. Now she plans to reclaim the life she left by going back to the reservation as a Native American storyteller, teaching the Apache children stories of their culture. She didn’t expect Mitch Broader’s sexy smile or job offer as a live-in nanny to derail those plans. After all she’s been through to come home, can she open up her heart once again to love?

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Excerpt

What a homecoming, Sara. First day back in Texas in years and you crash the town social. 

Sara Lightfoot chuckled at the nervous energy racing through her veins. She never thought coming home would be easy, but she certainly hadn't expected this much anxiety.

When she had first received Mandy's letter telling her she'd come back to Texas, she'd gotten the bug to come home. Safety in numbers, Mandy had said. No one will expect it.

Yeah, right! She hadn't always done the unexpected, but this time she was sure her arrival would cause enough of a stir that heads were going to turn and a flurry of whispers were going to race across the lawn like a brush fire on a dry Texas day.

It wasn't that big a deal and she didn't relish the kind of attention that was sure to come her way. She was coming home to a place she should have never left in the first place. But when all was said and done, it had taken the leaving to appreciate the home she had fled on the Apache reservation she'd grown up on.

As she drove down the endless highway toward Steerage Rock, Sara smiled to herself. She hadn't fled this time. This time she chose to leave LA and shed a little piece of herself in the process. She'd given up her old life and taken back her family name. That was the first of many steps she hoped would bring her closer to home.

Her divorce to Dave was now final. Another huge step. Going home to reclaim a life she threw away years before like a worn out dress was the next step. She only hoped that old life would want her back as much as she wanted to be back.

Mandy had insisted it would and Sara clung to that hope.

Main Street looked exactly as it had the day she and Dave had walked into the Justice of the Peace's office downtown and married. As she drove passed City Hall, she took in the cold and lonely feeling that swept through her and pushed it aside. She hadn't thought it lonely the day of her marriage. After all, she had Dave. What more could she need? He was going to make all her childhood dreams come true. Funny how dreams turn...

She heaved a heavy sigh as she reached the intersection that led to the main road leading to The Double T Ranch. Anticipation raced through her. Her hands started to tremble. Thank goodness, Mandy had gone against her wishes and come to LA for a spontaneous visit. If she hadn't, Lord knows she’d still be caught in the same prison Dave had neatly built for her.

Sara hit her directional and took a left hand turn, anticipation of seeing family for the first time in almost nine years and fear of their reaction filling her at the same time.

As she sped past the red brick elementary school, she pulled over, parked the car on the grass near a chain-link fence, and then felt the whoosh of a speeding car drive past her on the opposite side of the road. Someone was in a hurry to get out of town, she thought. She'd had enough of that in LA, where it seemed everyone was in a hurry. Out here, she'd have time. Time to heal her wounds and build back a life she'd thrown away.

A cluster of children played in the park and she had to smile. She'd always loved the children. And they had always loved her stories. After volunteering at a daycare in LA sharing her Native American heritage with the children through stories, she decided it was time to reconnect with a piece of her that had been missing. Sure, there were elementary schools and parks in LA and all over the world. She could have gone anywhere. But this...this was home.

* * *

A patch of open Texas sky stretched long and wide above the Double T Ranch. Mitch Broader adjusted his straw hat and took a moment to enjoy the view from where he was sitting, straddling a long beam of wood. Void of a single cloud, the deep cerulean space above him felt like a warm cozy blanket.

His face split into a grin that he couldn't hold back. It was a perfect day. They'd get all their work done and the next with time to spare before any bad weather could say different. This kind of luck had been following Mitch Broader ever since he'd bought his share in the Double T's new rodeo school nearly a year ago. That one small step would bring him closer to fulfilling a dream he'd had ever since the day he'd first driven those long roads from the Amarillo Airport with his grandfather.

Leaning forward on the sturdy beam, he waited for the crew of cowboys down on the ground to pass him and Beau Gentry, his longtime friend and now partner in the Double T's rodeo school, another beam to slip in place. This barn they were raising would give them plenty of room to house the horses they needed to run the school and bring him one step closer to the day when he'd own his own ranch, a dream he'd had since he'd come to Texas.

Of course, back then, when Mitch was still a gangly green boy from Baltimore, Mitch hadn't understood the hard work and dedication it would take to own a spread. After years of working alongside some well-seasoned Texas cowboys, he knew. He'd listened and learned his lessons well. Having a piece of the Double T's new rodeo training school might not be the same as owning his own ranch, but it was a step in the right direction. And for now, that suited Mitch just fine. He wasn't in a hurry.

When this crew--mostly volunteers from surrounding ranches and neighbors who'd come out for the event like it was a square dance social--was done putting all the pieces of this post and beam barn together, when the last spike was hammered deep and secure into the fine wood, they would all celebrate. A party the size of Texas with all the food and fixins' he'd come to enjoy.

Dancing and women. Yeah, there would be plenty of that, too. And that was the fun part of being a cowboy.

“Yo, Mitch!”

He peered down from the beam he was holding on to, toward the sound of a familiar female voice calling for him. A drop of sweat from his brow followed gravity and imbedded itself in his eye causing it to sting. He had to blink twice before he could focus.

“I'm kind of hung up, Mandy. Want to wait a sec?” he called back to the blonde haired woman staring up at him through squinted eyes. Mandy held her arched back with both hands, clearly uncomfortable in the heat being that she was nearly seven months pregnant with her first baby. There'd been a time, early on when he'd first arrived at The Double T Ranch that he'd thought Mandy Morgan was the cutest little creature he'd ever laid eyes on. Still sporting one heck of an adolescent broken heart, he'd set himself for more heartache when she up and fell in love with Beau, only to leave and never return to the ranch until last summer. Within the last year she'd become Mandy Morgan Gentry, his bride.

Mitch reached for one end of the beam being eased his way by the ground crew and slipped it cleanly into the pre-notched hole.

“Ah, Mitch?” Mandy called again. “If it was just me, I'd have no problem waiting on you. But I don't think this is something that can wait.”

“You ain't in labor or anythin', Mandy, are you? “ Beau said, ready to jump down from the beam he was straddling to aid his wife, his face panic-stricken. “The doctor said you were supposed to take it easy to keep from having any more contractions.”

“Cool your jets, Beau. I'm doing just fine,” she said with a chuckle and a twinkle in her eye that made instant relief register on Beau's sun tanned face. Pointing a finger at Mitch, she urged, “You're wanted in the house. Pronto.”

Mitch couldn't help but stare as Mandy spun on her heels, with as much grace as a woman in her condition could, and waddled back to the main farmhouse.

Beau chuckled from the other end of the beam. “What'd you do, Mitch? Forget to scrape the muck off your boots before walking into the house again?”

“It wouldn't be the first time. Corrine made it more than clear she'd have my head on a spit if I ruined that new carpet in the dining room.”

“Never known Corrine to tell a lie.”

Mitch couldn't help but laugh. Corrine Promise was a small woman, but the last two years had tested her strength--had tested them all--and she'd come out of it victoriously. The matriarch of the ranch, even though she'd rather hole up in her art studio with her hands in clay or paints to being ten feet near a cow, she was the epitome of the old time pioneer woman in spirit. While her husband might be in charge of running the daily business as owner of The Double T Ranch, there was no doubt it was Corrine who was in charge of the Promise home.

Mitch adjusted his straw cowboy hat on his head, feeling another trickle of sweat make a journey down the side of his face before dropping off and hitting his already sweat soaked white T-shirt. He finished toe nailing the steel spike into the beam to keep it in its place.

He glanced at his handiwork with appreciation. If done right, this barn would be standing long after he was nothing more than dust on this earth.

“Wish me luck,” he muttered in somewhat of a groan as he climbed down from the skeleton of the barn.

Beau's laughter faded as Mitch hiked through the crowd of neighbors and friends gathered to help with the festivities. A bundle of women stood gabbing under a shady tree about something intense as they poured pink lemonade to pass out to the chain of people working on the barn. They paid no attention to him as he grabbed one of the filled paper cups lined on the table and drank it down before shooting it into a garbage can at the end of the table.

Mitch drew in a pensive breath before he reached the screen door. Pausing, he scraped his boots extra hard on the doormat with a little more care than usual before walking into the house.

“Would it help if I said sorry for whatever I did, Corrine?”

He heard her lighthearted chuckle and let out a breath of relief. How much trouble could he really be in if she still held her humor?

“Do what you like,” Corrine called back to him from inside. “But I'm afraid it'll do no good.”

He made a face and groaned audibly. What on earth had he done this time?

* * *

“You've got to be kidding,” Mitch said just moments later, still not believing the bombshell that had just exploded in his face. He swayed for a second, and then slumped against the wall. It was a joke. It had to be!

Corrine held the tiny infant in her arms and eyed him. Not a trace of humor on her face. “Do I look like I'm kidding?”

“You've got to be--”

“Hard to believe, isn't it? Mitch is a daddy. Hearts will be breaking wide open now that Mitchell Broader is no longer footloose and fancy free,” Mandy chimed in. “You're gonna be changing diapers instead of picking up women after bringing the cows home.”

“This is a sick joke, right?”

Corrine shrugged as she blew a fallen tendril of hair from her forehead. “Maybe, but we're not the one playing it on you.”

“We're not into cruel and unusual punishment. Even for you.”

“Thanks a lot, Mandy,” he said, his mouth skewing into a wry grin.

She chuckled softly as she peered over the baby Corrine held in her arms and crooned softly. “No problem.”

“She actually said...Lillian said that I'm this kid's daddy? I mean...and then she just...left? She left the kid here for me to raise?” His throat constricted and he was finding it hard to draw breath. Right now, the only thing keeping him upright was the solid wall behind him and that was only as long as his knees didn’t give way.

Corrine motioned to the window. “Didn’t you see the dust cloud running down the driveway? The woman was in quite a hurry to escape.”

“I'll just bet.”

That would be typical Lillian. If it involved money, Lillian was in a hurry.

“Did anyone else talk with her? Did she say when she was coming back?”

“Nope, and with all the commotion today, no one would have noticed her, anyway. I came into the house to check on the lemon pies and she was just there sitting at the kitchen table like the rest of the chairs. I have no idea how long she'd been sitting there. All she said was this was your baby and your responsibility now. She didn't say anything about coming back for him.”

Corrine stood up from the worn couch she'd been sitting on, rocking the sleeping baby in her arms. She padded softly over to Mitch and held the child out to him. Her arms hung in the air. What did she expect him to do?

“He's truly an adorable child. Don't you want to hold your son?” she asked with the kind of warmth and compassion he'd come to love about her. Except this time, he didn't want to see it.

His son? Had she really called this warm little bundle his son? He looked at the baby boy dressed in a Baltimore Orioles baseball outfit and little sock booties, back at Corrine , and then at the baby again.

Corrine chuckled softly so as not to rouse the baby. “He's not going to do anything. I promise you that. It's a lot easier to hold him for the first time while he's asleep. Pretty soon he'll probably be crying for something.”

“I don't know anything about holding a baby.”

He was vaguely aware of Mandy coming into the living room, holding a freshly laundered white tee shirt. He'd somehow missed the fact that she'd left the room for a moment.

“You are not touching this precious baby wearing that sweaty shirt,” Mandy insisted. “Put this one on.”

He did as he was told, handing the shirt he'd been wearing to Mandy, who took it between her fingertips and walked back to the laundry room.

He shook his head. “I can't do this. There's got to be a mistake.”

“He's a baby, Mitch, not a bomb. Although he'll probably deposit something explosive in his diaper real soon,” Mandy said.

Corrine placed the baby in the crook of Mitch’s arm and closed his hand around the baby to keep him snug. “Don't worry. You've encountered worse messes in the barn. You can handle a little diaper.”

“Now this I've got to see,” Mandy said, crossing her arms across her chest and resting them on her ample belly.

He didn't know what irked him more. The fact that Lillian had pulled another fast one on him by dropping off some kid at the ranch, and claiming it to be his son, or the fact that Mandy and Corrine seemed to be taking such pleasure in something that was obviously meant to make him squirm.

“I know it's a shock,” Mandy started to say, but Mitch cut her off.

“That's quite the understatement.”

“But you do know who this Lillian person is, right?” Mandy asked. “I mean, she's not some stranger who happened to drive on by?”

No, Lillian was definitely not a stranger. “I know her.”

“Then is it possible she's telling the truth about this is your son?” Corrine asked.

He stared down at the baby and mentally counted the months since he'd last been in Baltimore. The last time he'd seen Lillian.

“It's a possibility.”

Corrine shrugged and smiled. “Well, then there you have it. Looks like we have a baby on the ranch sooner than we thought.”

Mitch stared down at the baby. No, it couldn't be. A baby? How was a baby going to fit into things on the ranch?

Corrine's sympathetic voice carved its way into his shock. “I really hate to do this to you, but I've got food in the oven that needs my attention.” Corrine left the room.

“I wish I could help you right now, too,” Mandy said. “But we're already stretched with all this cooking, especially now that Alice has gone home with a migraine.”

Those few little words sucked all the air out of the room for Mitch. “Wait...wait...you can't leave me alone with...with--”

Corrine pointed to the yard. “Do you see that crowd out there? They're here for us. They didn't have to leave their ranches to do this, but they did. I've got a lot of mouths to feed. Come sundown, after all the work they've done, they are going to be mighty hungry for some food. I wish it were different, but we can't help you baby-sit right now.”

Mandy moved past him, eyeing the baby with dreamy eyes. “A little later when things slow down some, I can give you a break.”

Mitch started gently bouncing the baby as he stirred. The kid looked so tiny in his big arms. “What do I...what's his name?”

Corrine poked her head in for just a second and said, “Jonathan.”

Then they were gone. And he was alone. With a baby.

* * *

Sara brought her sedan to a full stop at the gate announcing The Double T Ranch. It had been a long time since she'd visited Hank and Corrine Promise. Their spread was bigger than she'd remembered. But then a lot of changing happens in nine years. Mandy had mentioned hard times last year when she'd visited, something to do with Hank's health. But by the look of things, it seemed the hard times had past. She was glad for that.

She hit the gas pedal and pushed past the gate. A long string of cars and pickups trucks lined the side of the drive. As she approached, she saw a large green and white striped tent set up in the back yard with tables and chairs arranged beneath it. It wasn't until she got closer that she saw a team of people engrossed in erecting a post and beam barn.

It was a real honest to goodness old-fashioned barn raising. Now that was something you didn't see every day in Los Angeles.

There were people crawling all over the yard like ants picking up crumbs at a picnic. Sara parked her rental at the end of the line and walked along the row of cars leading to the festivities. The smell of manure and freshly mown hay drying in the sun filled her nose as she walk by grazing cows in the pasture.

A trickle of sweat made its way down her chest as she felt the heat of the sun. She should have changed into a pair of shorts and her sneakers before she'd left the airport, she thought. Her coral silk sleeveless blouse and pants were clinging to her skin after the long ride from the airport.

Clutched by anxiety and the overwhelming desire to run, she made a beeline for the house before anyone recognized her. With any luck, she'd spot Mandy first and have a private meeting before barging in on her parents. Odds were her mother was here already, having been the housekeeper at the Double T for more than fifteen years.

The screen door slammed, drawing her attention to the house. There'd be less people inside on such a hot day. Maybe she'd be able to find Mandy there before anyone spotted her.

Slipping past a group of blue-haired women tearing at a pitcher of iced tea under a low hanging cottonwood tree, Sara rushed up the brick path to the front door that faced the driveway. As she approached, she heard the plaintive sound of a baby crying, and the deep, almost groan, of a male voice. An extremely exasperated male voice.

The urgency of that voice had her bolting into the house without knocking.

The tall, dark-haired man pacing the living room, bouncing the baby was much too pre-occupied with trying to stop the baby from crying to notice her. He had his broad back to her, but it couldn't possibly be Beau, Sara quickly decided. She'd seen pictures of the wedding when Mandy had visited. Even with his back turned, she knew he looked different. And Mandy's baby wasn't due for at least another two or more months according to her last letter.

Dropping her purse on the oak end table, Sara advanced across the carpeted floor, worrying more about the poor infant than startling the man with her silent entry.

“Keep that up and you'll be smelling baby vomit on your boots for the next month,” she said.

The man swung around with the sound of her voice. It wasn't Beau, but she did know the face. She'd seen him before. But she couldn't quite place where.

“Oh, thank God someone is here,” he said, relief bursting to life in his sun-tanned face.

His bright eyes were a deep sapphire blue with flecks of gold and gray that reminded Sara of sunset and sunrise all in one. Although his skin was indeed a bronze color from the long days he no doubt spent in the Texas sun, his nose was slightly red and peeling. A testament to his fair skin. Sweat lined his dark brows as they creased.

“They all left me alone. He's been crying, and I have no idea what to do.”

“Poor baby,” she said, standing near enough to now stroke her finger across the baby's smooth cheek.

“Thanks.”

“No, I meant the baby. His mother should be brought up on charges for leaving this child with the likes of you.”

The man heaved a sigh. “At the moment, I couldn't agree with you more. Do you know anything about babies?”

“I know it's not good to bounce him around so much. It'll give him an upset stomach.”

“He's been crying forever.”

Sara rolled her eyes and couldn't help but smile. A cowboy had the stomach for castrating a bull, but some were so helpless when it came to babies. She actually felt sorry for him. “I'm sure it only seems that way.”

“No, I swear. And I don't know what he wants.”

“If he's been crying a long time, he may have colic.”

“Colic? You mean like a horse?” he croaked.

Sara chuckled quietly at the horrified look her gave her, thinking how good it felt to do that after so long. “Yeah, something like that.”

The man gulped. “Sometimes we have to put down horses with colic.”

“Trust me, you're not going to have to do that for the baby. When was the last time he had a bottle?”

He looked at her blankly. “A bottle?”

“Yeah, has he been fed? You know, formula you put in a bottle to feed the baby? You're not going to give him a slab of steak fresh off the grill at his age. Or maybe his mother is nursing?”

The man's broad shoulders sagged. “Look, I know how to raise cows and horses. I'm an imbecile when it comes to a baby.”

Sara quirked an eyebrow. “So it seems.”

She reached out, rescued the baby from the man’s arms, and stretched the baby belly-side down over the length of her arm, cooing to help soothe the baby. With a practiced hand, she checked his diaper to find that it was still dry.

“I take it this is not your baby.”

His blue eyes grazed the baby. For a moment, he looked a little lost himself. With a sigh, he said, “Can you help me?”

Sara glanced around the living room, on the sofa and the floor in search of a diaper bag. She found one snug between the sofa and end table. “See if there is a bottle in that diaper bag. If there is, bring it into the kitchen.”

She walked into the kitchen, holding the baby with one arm, and searched the pan wrack above the stove. She took a stainless steel pan from the wrack and filled it with hot tap water. The kitchen was filled with delicious smells of food that suddenly made her remember she hadn't eaten anything since that morning.

The man came into the kitchen rifling through the diaper bag until he pulled out a bottle filled with baby formula. Taking it from his hands, she placed it in the pan to warm, suddenly glad that her time volunteering at the daycare center back in LA made her feel useful here. At least it took her mind off her anxiety for a moment.

“Aren't you going to give the bottle to the baby?”

“How would you like to eat a cold steak for dinner?” she said softly, not wanting to jar the baby. Although he was still crying, the sobs weren't as extreme. After a few minutes she pulled the bottle from the water, tested it on her arm as she walked back into the living room. She perched herself on the edge of the sofa and placed the nipple into the baby's mouth. Immediately the infant took hold and started suckling.

“Oh, thank God,” the man said, running both hands over his head as silence filled the air. “I thought he was never going to stop.”

“He was just hungry. That's all. Babies can't skip meals like grownups can.”

“You must have had a lot of practice doing this. You're a natural.”

“I know a thing or two about children.”

“What did you do, raise all your brothers and sisters?”

“I volunteered at a daycare for a while.”

The man sat on the opposite end of the sofa and appeared to finally relax a little. “Daycare, huh? I'll have to remember that. I'm eternally in your debt.”

Sara tossed him a wry grin. “That's a bit extreme, don't you think? All I did was give him a bottle.”

“You wouldn't say that if you'd been here the last half hour.”

The man was really staring at her for the first time now that he wasn't preoccupied with a crying baby. She shifted uncomfortably as his blue eyes pierced her and then seemed to brighten just a notch.

“I know you. We've met before.” His smile was of the high wattage variety, complete with perfect white teeth and dimple marking his cheek.

Sara had thought she'd recognized him and now that he seemed familiar with her, she realized she must have at some point before she’d gone to Los Angeles.

“I'd offer to shake your hand, but they're a little busy. I'm Sara Gre…uh, Sara Lightfoot,” she said, catching herself when she almost gave him her former married name.

His face lit up. “We have met. A long time ago here at the ranch. Alice's daughter, right?”

She nodded. “How do you know?”

“Mitch Broader. I started working here at the ranch on weekends my last year of high school.”

“Mitch.” She thought back to the years before she'd run away, before she'd met Dave and her world shifted so rapidly. “I remember a tall lanky kid with a colossal crush on Mandy who always poked around the barn whenever we were around.”

He shot her a lopsided grin that made her insides flutter just a bit. “And all this time I thought I was being charming.”

Sara chuckled.

“Your mother didn't mention anything about you coming home.”

Anxiety hit her square in the stomach. “She didn't know.” Trying to turn the attention off her, she asked, “What's the baby's name?”

“Jonathan.”

“Well, hello there, Jonathan,” she crooned as she stared down at the baby in her arms. He’d taken the bottle quickly and was now on his way to falling back to sleep.

“Is his mom outside helping with the barn raising?”

Mitch groaned. “If I know Lillian, she's probably out raising Cain.”

She felt a frown crease her forehead. “Then, this is your baby?”

“I...I'm not sure.”

“You don't know?”

Mitch's face grew tight. “He's my responsibility right now. Beyond that I know about as much as you do.”

“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry.”

“Forget it. At least you got him to stop crying. I never knew how good silence sounded.”

She looked down at the tiny infant, who seemed drugged by the formula he'd just consumed. “He looks just like you, you know.”

“He's a baby. All babies look alike,” Mitch said, the tension back in his face.

But it instantly vanished as the screen door slammed shut and the two of them looked up at the doorway leading to the kitchen.

Sara's stomach wound into a tight knot and she quickly handed the sleeping baby back to Mitch.

“Sara. Sara, is that you?”

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Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Teaser Tuesday: Her Heart for the Asking



Texas Hearts Book One
HER HEART FOR THE ASKING

Mandy Morgan swore she’d never step foot in Texas again after Beau Gentry left her for life on the rodeo circuit eight years before. But now her uncle’s heart is failing and she has to convince him that surgery will save his life. She never dreamed the first thing she’d see when she stepped off the plane would be her biggest nightmare...the one man she’d never stopped loving.

Beau Gentry had the fever for two things: the rodeo and Mandy Morgan. But for Beau, loving Mandy was complicated by his father’s vendetta against her uncle. This led him to make the hardest decision of his life and he can still see the bitterness and hurt on Mandy’s face. All these years it has killed him to think Mandy had forgotten him and moved as far away as possible from him. But now they’re back in Texas, and he’s going to do all he can to win back her love.

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Excerpt

"What are you doing here?" Mandy Morgan asked, dropping her too-heavy overnight case on the sun-roasted tarmac. After a grueling forty-eight hour work stint and a five-hour flight from Philadelphia, she stood wilting under the brutal Texas sun, facing her biggest nightmare.

Beau Gentry.

She groaned inwardly, drinking Beau in with her eyes as if she hadn't had a drop of water in months. Eight years was more like it. If she were eight years smarter, she would be moving her aching feet as fast as she could in the opposite direction. But all she could do was stare at eyes so bright they rivaled the blazing sun. At lips so kissable she'd spent the better part of her adult life trying to wipe the memory clean from her mind.

She had expected Beau would have aged some. When she allowed herself to think about him at all, she reminded herself. The faint lines etched in the corners of his sleepy gray-blue eyes gave a hint of maturity, but most probably caused by long days in the cruel sun.

She fought the urge to take a closer look at his ruggedly handsome features, but failed. How could he have gotten better looking after being abused by every bronc-busting horse on the rodeo circuit? His angular jaw, strong and determined, was shaded with beard growth that was probably a day old, maybe more. Mandy suspected if Beau grew a full beard, it would grow in thick and be the smooth texture of his almost black head of hair. She forced aside past memories that gave her such knowledge with renewed irritation.

The man didn't even have the decency to have a crooked nose. What should have been bent and awkward from being broken a few too many times was instead long and straight, shaped perfectly between high cheek bones most women would swoon over, or kill to have themselves. But on Beau Gentry, it was just one thousand percent robust cowboy.

Damn him.


"I'm your ride out to the Double T," Beau said, gripping the edge of his white straw cowboy hat and tipping it in a cordial gesture.

She ground the heels of her low pumps into the soft tar to contain her growing irritation. Did he think she was an idiot? "No way."

"'Fraid so," he said, his expression slightly askew.

"Hank didn't mention anything about you coming to get me when I spoke to him on the phone."

"I suspect he thought you would have found some excuse not to come if you knew I was picking you up."

"He would have been right. Why didn't one of the hands come get me?"

Settling his hand at the base of his neck, Beau replied, "You're looking at him. As of three weeks ago I am one of the ranch hands at the Double T."

What?! Mandy fought the urge to keep her surprise from showing, but immediately failed. Beau Gentry was the son of her uncle's biggest rival. It hadn't stopped her from falling head over heels for the man on those long, lazy summers she came down to the ranch to visit her aunt and uncle. Of course, back then, rodeo was all Beau cared about, not his father's spread. Not her, she remembered painfully.

He was going to go PRCA and be a world champion. It was his dream and all he ever talked about. He was good enough to do it, too, Mandy thought wryly. So good, he hadn't given her a second glance when he rode out of Texas without her eight years ago on the heels of a golden sunset.

Her chuckle was almost hysterical. "You really expect me to leave this airport with you?"

"That was the plan," he said smiling, his gray eyes seeing more of her than she wanted him to see. He held his ground. He had to know how difficult it was to see him after all this time. It didn't matter that he didn't share her unrest. He could have at least had the decency to think about her feelings. But then he hadn't thought about her feelings eight years ago when he broke her heart, so it didn't seem he was any more incline to do so now.

Beau Gentry might be clueless, but there was no way Mandy was going anywhere with him. No way she'd spend the next two hours bouncing up and down in a hot pickup truck breathing in his scent and wrestling with memories...

Mandy twisted on her heels and surged in the opposite direction. "Forget it," she called over her shoulder.

There had to be a cab going somewhere. Anywhere. A hot, sticky bus would be a lot more inviting than spending the next few hours in inescapable close quarters with Beau.

"Mandy, what are you going to do, walk all the way to the Double T?"

"I'm sorry you were dragged out here like this, Beau. But I'm afraid it was a waste of your time. I...can rent a car."

Behind her, Mandy heard his heavy sigh and the sound of his boots stop short on the tarmac. Defeat? Regret? She wasn't sure, but she was very sure she shouldn't care.

Since Mandy had just come off a forty-eight hour work-marathon and let her cell phone battery run down, she concentrated on finding a payphone.

"It's been a while since you've been around. The car rental service went belly up here two years ago. About the closest thing you could do to get away from me right now is to take a cab to the bus depot. And I'll just have to pick you up when you get to Steerage Rock anyway."

She stopped walking when she reached the pay phone just outside the small terminal, angling back to see where Beau was standing. The airport was small enough not to have gates. All passengers exited the plane on the tarmac. She glanced past the booth to the boarded up window near the entrance to the small building that housed the air tower, the terminal and a small restaurant-a fast food diner of sorts. The peeled paint of the weather-beaten banner didn't hide the letters of a rental car company that indeed had gone out of business.

She blew out an exasperated breath of frustration in the already hot Texas heat. She wasn't ready to give up. Right now, a bus looked as if it might be a possibility, since the last orange taxi just pulled out of the parking lot with one of the passengers who'd been on the same flight she'd taken. She remembered seeing a bus depot not far from here when Uncle Hank used to pick her up. It wouldn't take her all the way to the Double T, but close enough not to put Uncle Hank or Aunt Corrine out when she called and asked for a ride.

She was being ridiculous. Part of her knew that, accept her behavior as being childish. But part of her rationalized it as necessary. She knew all too well the dangers of being with Beau Gentry. It had taken Mandy too long to get over him and she wasn't about to let anything allow the man to seep into her heart again.

"I can manage," she said resolutely.

"I suspect you could. You seem to have done fine for yourself, judging by the fancy clothes you're wearing and that designer luggage."

With a fistful of quarters in her palm, she swung around, cradling the phone in her other hand. Leveling him with a warning stare, she said tightly, "I don't think you're in a position to judge me after what you did."

His face showed a momentary flash of regret. "That was a long time ago, Mandy."

She gripped the quarters in her hand, felt her pulse hammer in her wrist. "I have a long memory."

Turning her attention back to the task at hand, Mandy decided the phone book was useless. What was the company name on the side of that yellow cab? It had been eight years since she'd been in Texas. Eight years was a long time for a county to change. Who could she possibly call if her one and only ally in Texas sent the one man she swore she'd never lay eyes on again?

Defeated, she dropped the out of date phonebook, and chided herself for not charging her cell phone before she left for the airport. She had most of her numbers on speed dial and couldn't even recall the number for the Double T. It would teach her to let her cell phone battery run down again, leaving her unprepared.

"Tell me, Beau. Why did you come here? Someone else could have easily come for me. Why did it have to be you?"

His gray-blue eyes lost some of their luster and grew solemn. There was a time long ago when she thought she could stare at those eyes and be lost in them for hours. You still could, she realized with sudden regret.

Not a good sign.

He adjusted his hat in that lazy way he always did. "Because Hank asked me to. That's why."

There was her life in a nutshell. Beau was asked. And Mandy wasn't. Mandy was never asked, she was told. And like the good girl she was raised to be, Mandy always complied.

She thought back to the conversation she'd had with her mother just three days ago with renewed irritation.

"I'm not asking, Mandy," Leandra Morgan had said over the phone.

I'm telling you.

Her mother didn't have to actually say the last part for Mandy to know what she was thinking. It was a given. It followed every request the woman ever made. I'm not asking you to keep your tongue. I'm not asking you to come to your cousin's party. I'm not asking you to apologize to your father. I'm not asking you to work for the family business...or date the son of your father's biggest client. I'm telling you.

Three days ago Mandy had sat in her downtown Philadelphia office on the phone with her mother, impatiently drumming her foot on the lift on her chair. "I am knee deep in this project for Dad, Mom. There's just no way I'm going to be able to get away. I can't make both of you happy at the same time."

"You'll just have to find a way." Leandra's voice came like static over the phone. "Your uncle...isn't himself. It's been a long time since you've visited him in Texas. I think it would do him some good to see you again. I think it's time you go."

A tug of emotion had squeezed her chest. It had been years since she'd visited Uncle Hank and Aunt Corrine at the Double T. She'd never told her mother why she'd stopped her summer visits, and thankfully, her mother had never pushed for a reason. Mandy suspected her mother had just accepted her decision to not make her summer vacation as Mandy asserting adolescent independence, wanting to remain in Philadelphia to enjoy some summer freedom with her friends. She'd never spoken about what happened that last summer. Never confided of her first love. And that was just fine with Mandy. She didn't need to be reminded.

"I'll call Uncle Hank and explain. I can't get away now. He'll understand," she'd said.

"You make it happen, young lady." I'm not asking.

A voice boomed over the outdoor loudspeaker announcing the arrival of another flight. Mandy was immediately pulled back to the present, back to Texas, and the hot tarmac she now stood on, heels sinking into the sun-softened tar.

"We've got a couple of hours ahead of us. I'm going to get something cold to drink for the ride," Beau said, ambling toward the building. Turning back, he asked, "You want something?"

Yeah, I want you to go away. I want to forget the way you broke my heart all those years ago. But she knew that was futile. She'd been a fool to think she'd gotten over him. If eight years and countless dates with very eligible men hadn't exorcised the memory of Beau Gentry from her heart and soul, nothing would.

Mandy glanced at him, defeat sitting just beneath the surface of her composure, and shook her head.

How could he act so normal? How could he be asking her something as simple as whether she wanted a soda when the last time they'd seen each other had been such a sham?

And how dare he be so handsome after a two hour ride in a hot pickup truck? His white tee-shirt stretched taut across his muscled shoulders. She knew first hand just how strong those arms were when they were wrapped around her in a warm embrace. After years of breaking every wild bronc on the circuit, they were sure to be even stronger.

There wasn't an ounce of body fat on the man. His jeans weren't a tight fit, even baggy in a few places where she longed to lazily roam her hand over and on a few occasions long ago had. But on Beau, there was nothing sloppy about it. Just high voltage sex appeal that had her rampant heart doing an acrobatic dance right there on the blazing tarmac.

And he was nonchalantly asking if she wanted a soda.

The door closed behind him as he stepped into the building and Mandy watched through the tinted window while he wandered over to the soda machine in the corner and made his selection. He stood there, his weight shifted lazily to one hip in a never-do-care way.

She tore her gaze away from her torture. Beau Gentry might look like a dream come true from the cover of Modern Cowboy, but she was an utter disaster after her long flight. Suddenly aware she was still wearing yesterday's silk suit, she ran her hands down her skirt in a futile attempt to smooth out the wrinkles. Giving up, she rummaged through her purse for a barrette and a comb. Anything to pull together hair that had become unruly from neglect, heat and the wind. Settling on a hairband and her fingers as a comb, she wrestled her normally-wavy-gone-curly-in-the-heat dusty blonde hair into a pony tail. She hated that it made her look sixteen again. But there wasn't much she could do until she could get back to the ranch and unpack her things.

As Mandy watched Beau walk out into the sunshine with two Root Beers and a bag of chips in his hand, she reasoned she wasn't as vulnerable as she had been then. Letting the likes of Beau Gentry stomp on her heart was something she wouldn't do ever again. She was a woman now. She could do this. She led corporate business meetings. She used her innovative ideas to dazzle prospective clients into spending millions of advertising dollars with her father's firm. She'd just purchased an elegant townhouse in one of the trendiest sections of Philadelphia. All she had to do was pull herself together and she could handle this situation like the professional she was.

"I'm not going," she said, cursing inwardly for sounding like a spoiled child. So much for the corporate executive touch.

Beau's lips curled into a slight grin. He wouldn't win any points if he ticked Mandy off by laughing at the way her chin tilted up in defiance. That hadn't changed much. Or the flash of fire in her deep brown eyes. They still looked as black and contrasted wildly with the natural streaks of blond in her hair. He'd always found that appealing, adorable as all get-out. Already his fingers itched to dig in and let the soft curls of her hair tumble in his hand.

But she had changed. Any fool could see that Mandy Morgan had blossomed into a five star beauty while he'd been out roaming the country these last eight years.

She was still slim as she was at sixteen, but her figure had filled out in all the right places that made a man take notice. The light rock in her hips that had taunted him when she was sixteen had matured into a graceful sway he found hypnotizing. Although she'd chewed off most of her lipstick, he noticed she now wore a slight hint of makeup on her cheeks and eyes, giving her the more exotic look of a woman.

And she still had the power to make his head spin like a lasso chasing a calf. He longed to see her smile again, hear her laugh bubble up from her soul. But given the way things ended between them, and the way she stood before him now with her arms knotted tightly in front of her chest, her jaw set, he knew she wouldn't crack a smile just to spite him.

Lord only knew why Hank insisted he be the one to pick her up at the airport.

"Did you hear me?" she finally said when he didn't answer her.

"Yeah, I did."

Her dark eyes widened slightly. "Oh. Good."

Beau reached down and picked up her leather garment bag, watching as her bewildered eyes followed his movement.

"It doesn't change anything though. Hank asked me to pick you up at the airport and bring you home, and that's what I'm doing if I have to toss you over my shoulder and drop you in the pickup."

Mandy gasped. "You wouldn't dare!"

"Wanna try me?" He couldn't help but smile. She just looked too darlin' getting all hot and flustered. She had to know he wouldn't give up. Not just because she was virtually stuck, and knew it, but because she knew he would never refuse Hank's request.
She sighed and closed her eyes. "You touch me and I'll..."

"What?"

"I'll..."

"Afraid of what you'll do?" His smile widened just thinking. "Or are you afraid of how you'll feel in my arms again?"


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