Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Teaser Tuesday: The More I See



Texas Hearts Book Three
THE MORE I SEE

As a top-notch cutting horse trainer, Cody Gentry was riding high until he lost his eyesight after a freak chemical accident. Unable to see the hand in front of his face, never mind the horse or cattle he trained, he knows his life is over and slips deep into depression. His whole future hinges on the success of an eye surgery that could give him his old life back.

When guide dog trainer, Lyssa McElhannon, arrives on his ranch like Florence Nightingale coming to save him, he wants no part of her or her guide dog. But something about Lyssa’s musical laugh coupled with her tenacity digs under his skin and won't let go. Having been blind most of her life, Lyssa understands the paralyzing fear Cody feels after losing his vision. But she refuses to let the stubborn cowboy waste his life away sitting in a chair when she knows first-hand that a good guide dog can change his world. She just needs one month to prove it to him.

Falling in love with Cody was not part of Lyssa’s plan, nor was having him open her eyes to see that there was a whole lot of living she’d been missing out on.

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Excerpt

There was nothing extraordinary about Alyssandra Orchid McElhannon but her name. She was used to being invisible where men were concerned. Men were an unusual breed for sure. This one was no different.
Lowering her sunglasses, she blinked as she peered at the long, lean man stretched out on the lawn chair by the pool. So this was Cody Gentry. The man that insisted she come all the way from the Houston school where she'd worked to personally train him here on the Silverado Ranch.
At least Cody Gentry had a valid excuse not to notice her. He was blind.
He made no move to indicate he'd heard her approach, or the soft sound of dog claws scratching on the concrete as she led her guide dog closer. No tilt of his head, no lift of his long fingers, weaved tightly together on his lap, not even a twitch of his booted feet, crossed and slightly hanging over the end of the lawn chair.
Lyssa slid the sunglasses back up the bridge of her nose. He could be asleep, she decided. By the slump of his shoulders and the angle of his head, cocked to one side, his white straw cowboy hat tilted over his face ever so slightly, it was certainly possible. It would explain why he'd yet to have even a slight reaction to her approach.
She knew how acute the other senses were when one was lost. She'd outfitted herself in her usual garb, a pair of well-worn blue jeans, a cool cotton button-down shirt, and a comfortable pair of sneakers. She could understand how the soft soles of her sneakers would be muffled. Lyssa wasn't the most graceful person, but she wasn't a clod. If Cody hadn't heard the sound of her footsteps, he should have at least noticed the telltale sound of Otis' paws on the walkway.
Maybe he wasn't asleep. Maybe he was just being rude. Mike Gentry, Cody's father, had warned as much.
It had been only a week ago that Mike Gentry first approached the Houston Guide Dog School asking for immediate help, insisting his son needed a one-on-one instructor. If only the school could send someone to the ranch, he said, it might break through the deep, impenetrable depression that had overtaken his son since a freak chemical accident had rendered him blind nearly eight months earlier. It might help him get back among the living again.
Lyssa had been in the office the day Mike Gentry strode in with deep pockets and endless arguments about why he needed someone immediately. The director had been insistent that the school offered only month-long classes to students who stayed on their campus. While what Mike was asking for his son was not unprecedented, it was usually reserved for extreme cases.
The money Mike offered to gift the school spoke of his desperation. Right in front of Lyssa, he'd offered what amounted to enough money to service several dogs to those in need. After a failed corneal transplant, the likelihood that Cody would get his eye-sight back was slim to none. Cody needed to become functional again in his own environment, and without the aid of a guide dog, he wouldn't be able to get around.
Mike had assured the school that Cody was eager to work with a guide dog, but given life on the ranch, he felt that training should be conducted in the environment where the dog and handler would spend the bulk of their time.
Lyssa found she couldn't stay quiet. There was time before the next class started. She had a dog ready and, even with the limited information Mike Gentry had offered about his son, Lyssa felt the match might work.
Peering over at Cody now, she realized the depression Mike Gentry spoke of was much worse than he had let on.
The desperation, the depression. Lyssa had seen it happen before. Although, since she'd lost her own eyesight at such an early age, she didn't remember feeling it herself. When she regained her sight after twenty years of living in darkness it was cause for celebration. New miracle surgery—an option that wasn't open to everyone. Yet. But Lyssa was sure that one day it would be. The advances modern science had made astounded her.
Until that day came, she had the incredible task of trying to pull this six-foot-plus man out of his despair by showing him that life was still worth living without his vision.
She sighed, noticing the heavy slump of his shoulders. She had her work cut out for her.
She commanded Otis to sit and the well-trained dog heeded the command instantly. Lyssa cleared her throat. The man didn't move.
As she suspected, he'd heard her perfectly well. He simply chose to ignore her.
"I was told I could find Cody Gentry out here by the pool," Lyssa finally said.
The muscles on his face twitched slightly. "Who's looking?"
The timbre of his voice was deep, with a faintly ominous edge that reminded Lyssa of the voices she'd heard as a child when she and Kim would sneak downstairs in the middle of the night and watch old horror flicks on cable. She couldn't see the movies, she'd only heard the voices. That added to the mystery, raised the level of anticipation, sending shivers racing up her spine.
Cody wasn't anything out of a horror movie. She ignored the swell of apprehension that had her confidence faltering.
She knew better than to extend her hand in a normal greeting for her introduction. Instead, she drew in a deep breath and hoped her voice sounded pleasant. "I'm Alyssandra McElhannon."
He didn't move. "What do you want?"
"I brought Otis," she said cheerfully.
"What's Otis?"
"Otis is a who, not a what."
His whole body seemed to stiffen. His voice was controlled, but edgy enough to send shivers chasing over her skin. "I'm sorry you came all the way out here like this. Apparently someone failed to give you adequate information. I'm not training cuttin' horses anymore."
"Oh, Otis isn't a horse. He's a dog. Your guide dog. And I'm here to train the two of you to work as a team." She said the words with the pride she couldn't help but feel. Otis, like many dogs trained as seeing aids for the vision-impaired, was a lifeline to independence.
He sat still, unaffected. It wasn't at all the reaction she'd been expecting.
"Not interested."
"And you would be Cody Gentry, I take it?" she asked, already knowing he was.
"I just said I'm not interested."
"And I heard you. My job is to make you interested."
"Says who?"
Confused, she said, "Mike Gentry, for one."
He groaned audibly and straightened up in his chair. "My father sent you, huh?"
"That's right. He didn't tell you I was coming?"
"Did he already pay you for your troubles?"
"Well, yes, a portion is—"
"Then you're fired. I'll make sure you get the rest of the money you're owed by mail. I'm sorry he wasted your time."
Lyssa's huff was slightly exaggerated. Cody was as difficult as Mike Gentry had warned, but in a totally different way than Lyssa had been prepared for.
"In the first place, the school pays my salary and it is run entirely by donations. Second, training my dogs and students is never a waste of my time. Furthermore, you aren't the one who hired me, your father did. In fact, he asked me to stay on at the ranch until you and Otis were working well together. So, you can't fire me, no matter how much you squawk."
He made a face that almost made her laugh. "Squawk?"
Crossing her arms across her chest, she said, "I call it like I see it."
"Listen, Ms. McElfen—er—McEllaf... What's your name again?"
"McElhannon," she said slowly. "Alyssandra Orchid McElhannon. If we're going to be working together, I'd prefer to keep things informal. So you can call me Lyssa, if it's easier."
Easier and infuriating, she knew. Just because he couldn't see her, didn't mean he couldn't hear perfectly well. In fact, she knew his hearing was much better now than it had been before he'd lost his eyesight.
"Okay, Lyssa. I appreciate your crusade here, but you really are wasting your time. And mine, for that matter. I don't need a dog, and I don't need you. I need my eyes back. And if you can't give me that, then get out of my way! I don't want you or your dog here."
Anger flared so strong through her whole being that Lyssa could taste its bitterness. Part of Mike Gentry's argument that Cody needed a one-on-one instructor was because of his environment. He'd warned Cody could be difficult to work with, but explained he was there on Cody's behalf and that Cody was anxious to start training as soon as possible. He had attitude, but a strong desire. The only way to show Cody exactly how infuriating he could be was to throw it back in his face, his father had told her. Fight fire with fire. That seemed to be the only way to break through Cody's despair lately.
Lyssa couldn't argue with that. Cody had plenty of attitude. But Lyssa had underestimated the warning and now regretted it. Fight fire with fire? In her estimation, she was going to need to set off a case of C4 explosives to even make a dent.
"Otis and I aren't going anywhere," she said calmly. "At least not for the next month."
"A month?"
"That's right."
Anger simmered to a boil just beneath the surface of Cody's exterior, it seemed. His movements were quick and deliberate as he sat up straight and dropped his boots to the ground with a thud. She wanted to take a step back to shield herself from the slap of anger she was sure he was about to unleash, but she held her ground.
Lyssa had been too young to feel the anger when she'd lost her eyesight. She learned, just as a child learns to crawl and then walk, how to live in her dark world. Learning to crawl for a child was second nature. Curiosity won over confidence every time, hands down. Get from point A to point B and it didn't matter how you got there as long as you did it.
Learning to crawl as an adult, however, was utterly different.
Lyssa stayed rooted in her place and silently watched Cody stumble, disoriented, trying to rise from the lounge chair. He then felt his way around the table to the back of the chair. He lifted his head and an almost imperceptible sigh of relief escaped his lips. Cody dragged in a breath of air and began walking, his body tall and proud, his hands rooted at his side instead of out in front of him as a guide.
He must have memorized the amount of steps. Even in his stubbornness, his instinct for survival took over. Maybe she could use that to her advantage. Make it his. She wasn't going to give him an inch, though. She suspected a single step back for Cody would feel more like a mile.
Eight steps.
He didn't need her here. Not right at that moment. But she gave it one more try to see if she could make a small crack in his resolve.
"If you'd like, Otis will take you in."
He reached the door and lifted his hands, floating them out in front of him until they made purchase with the outer wall of the house. "I told you I don't need the dog."
"Yeah, I heard you. But counting eight steps only gets you from the chair to the house. What do you do when you're out in the fields? There aren't any chairs out there. Or is that some place you never venture anymore?"
His whole body became rigid. But he said nothing.
Lyssa shifted her weight to one hip and crossed her arms as she looked out into the green and gold pastures that rolled deep into the horizon.
"I suppose you could count the fence posts, or even paces to the fence, but turning around would be a bear. You could end up walking all the way to the county line before you hit the other side of the ranch."
"Your point?" he said haughtily.
"Otis can help you get around. Help you climb out of your eight steps and make it a hundred or more."
He dismissed her easily by turning and carefully walking through the French doors.
She released a slow breath, felt her shoulders sag slightly. Guilt should be gnawing at her insides by now for stripping down his reality, but she had no other choice. In her experience, it was either depression in a comfortable chair for the rest of his days, or it was living again. She was determined to make sure Cody Gentry chose right.
In the meantime, Lyssa had a few strong words for his father.
 
* * *
 
Where the hell was his father? And how dare he invite some snotty woman into the house to fix what couldn't be fixed, Cody fumed silently as he moved through the kitchen. A dog? What the hell was he thinking? Anyone with an ounce of sense or optical training knew that life as he knew it was over.
"Isadore, have you seen my father?" He knew the housekeeper was in. Ever since the accident nearly eight months ago, the petite woman, who'd been a regular fixture in the main house for as long as he could remember, had taken to keeping her eyes on him.
"He's not back from Houston yet," she said. He heard the scrape of a pan against the metal stovetop. He was sure the pot was empty and she was just trying to act busy, as she always did when he caught her watching. No doubt she was the one who'd told Lyssa McElfen, or whatever her name was, he was outside by the pool.
"He's with Ms. Waite."
Terrific. Dad's new lady friend. Cody supposed he should be happy for his old man, having been widowed for more than seven years now. His trips to Houston were becoming longer and more frequent.
"Has Beau made himself scarce, too?"
"Your brother is out with the horses, I think. He's been out a long while and should probably be in soon. Do you need me to get him?"
Cody sighed, a fingernail of irritation scratching its way to the surface of his composure. But he didn't bark out at Isadore. He knew better.
"No, don't bother. I'll find him."
The last thing he wanted was for Isadore to rush right out to find Beau. His relationship with his brother had been tenuous at best since Beau went on the road. He'd left home nine years ago to pursue fame on the rodeo circuit as a bronc bareback rider, leaving Cody a pile of ranch work and his dad's bad moods to deal with because of it. The World Championship title would have been his had he not come back to Texas and married the daughter of their father's biggest rival, opening up a rodeo school on the ranch his dad had always wanted for himself.
Thanks to the accident that took Cody's eyesight, his dear brother was now doing double duty back at the Silverado Ranch, stepping into Cody's boots as easily as if he'd never been gone.
"What do you know about our new guest?"
He sensed Isadore's hesitation in her hitch of breath. "Mr. Gentry asked me to get the guest bedroom ready. She is staying in the room next to yours."
"Ain't that convenient," he groaned, nearly under his breath.
Not quiet enough, however. Isadore's glare penetrated him, as harsh as the hot Texas sun. He didn't have to see the scowl on Isadore's face or the fist planted firmly on her aproned hip to know that was the picture in front of him now.
"You be polite to her. Ms. McElhannon seems like a very nice young girl."
"I'll be my usual charming self."
"Hmm, that's what I'm afraid of."
He fought the smile that pulled at his cheeks as he felt along the wall of the kitchen and down the hallway.
He had a good idea where Beau was at, but the arena was not a place he wanted to be right now. Not when his nerves were frazzled as if he'd been running a caffeine IV into his veins all day.
Twelve steps. He pushed through the front door. Three steps. He gripped the rail and eased himself down to the walkway. This was his ranch. He knew every inch of it, had committed it to memory long ago and could call up any image at will. He didn't need a stupid dog to help him get around.
The walkway led to the gravel driveway and beyond that, the field of high grass. He could almost see the tall blades bending against the light breeze, creating a ripple of green and gold in the sun. In the distance, he could hear a tractor, most likely mowing and scoring the piles of clippings to bake in the sun before being tied into bales.
Cody walked toward the sound, slowly, deliberately, noting the sudden change beneath his boots as he moved from gravel to grass.
"Where are you heading?" Beau called out from his left. His brother was still a good distance away.
"For a walk. You got a problem with that?"
"No, but you might when you end up in the pond you're heading towards."
Cody groaned as heat crept up his neck and seared his cheeks. "At least by then I'll know what direction I'm heading in."
"That's for sure. Do you—"
Beau was about to ask him if he needed anything. A simple question, Cody knew. He just hated hearing it from his big brother.
New wife, new baby, Beau seemed to have it all. And now he was here working Cody's horses and filling his size 12 boots with ease.
Cody supposed he should feel grateful. Although they never seemed to see eye to eye on just about anything, he trusted Beau like no one else. And yeah, his love for his brother ran deeper than the earth he was standing on, despite the bad feelings that had worked their way between them over the years. That was never going to change.
But right now, Beau's very presence on the ranch nagged at Cody like an annoying insect. He didn't want Beau's help. Didn't want anyone's help. He wanted to be able to get up in the morning and work like he'd done his whole life.
He couldn't see how his hands had changed over these last eight months, but he knew they had. He could feel it. The calluses, buried deep in every inch of his palms, had been there his whole life. A working man's hands. Now they'd grown soft from a lack of the physical labor that had dug those marks in deep. He fisted his hand and squeezed, trying to feel what was no longer there.
In the distance, Cody could hear an unfamiliar dog barking and the musical laugh of a woman. Not just any woman. Alyssandra Orchid McElfen or whatever.
The woman had a mouthful of a name to go with that sharp-edged attitude.
Still, as much as Cody wanted her gone, he couldn't help but wonder what the woman was like. How that sass in her voice translated to the way she walked or her looks. When she was angry, did she stand rigid, balling her fists at her hips?
Unlike the softness his hands had developed, a woman's touch was a softness he'd missed sorely these past months. And for all the steam Lyssa had spewed at him by the pool, Cody found himself wondering about the woman whose carefree laughter was floating to him from the distance.
There hadn't been an ounce of pity in Lyssa's voice, which to Cody was a welcome relief. If he heard one more worried syllable asking how he was getting along, he didn't think he could stand it.
He sighed as he sat on a section of freshly mowed grass and absentmindedly sifted through the stray clippings that were now baked bone-dry from the hot sun. It didn't matter what Lyssa and his father had cooked up for him. He didn't need a dog.
And he didn't want anyone's pity because his life was now dug deep in a hole. In a matter of weeks his eyes should be healed enough to try for another transplant. Despite what his old man thought, Cody hadn't given up. He was dealing with what life dealt him. His own way.
Lyssa was right about one thing, he realized as he sat there in the hot sun. Something as simple as walking across the yard, the same yard that had been his playground as a child, had become a dangerous affair.
Early on, when Cody had refused to believe the doctor's assessment that his eyes were shot, Cody had surged on. He was a worker from the cradle. Hands in dirt, feet in muck, and he didn't care. Nothing was ever going to keep him down, never mind a simple chemical accident.
It was just stupid drain cleaner that had landed him where he was. It wasn't as if the ranch hadn't had other young hands that were wet behind the ears and stupid in the ways of basic safety. It had been sheer bad luck that had him in the crossfire when the chem-ical cocktail the impatient ranch hand had mixed exploded. It was also Cody's fast action that had prevented that young hand from getting killed.
Tossing a handful of blades to the ground, he chuckled wryly at the irony. At one time Isadore had said he had eyes like a hawk, seeing every little detail that happened on this ranch no matter where he was standing. Every acre was etched in his memory. He knew every swell of green pasture, every upturned stone that built the natural fences along the property, as if Mother Nature herself had laid them that way on purpose. He closed his eyes and imagined it as it had been the last time he'd sat by the pond and looked out at the ranch he knew so well.
The Silverado Ranch had always been his home, and his childhood memories, plentiful and lush, only dug his roots in deeper, and made the love for this land that much stronger. It was lost to him now. But the memories were there.
They'd been a trio as kids, him, Beau and Jackson, running through the fields when their old man had relieved them of their daily chores. Brock was too young to keep up with them, the gap in years too wide from the older three boys. Too young to share in the trouble young boys usually met up with when exploring. And they hadn't really wanted him tagging along. Not then, anyway.
It was one of Cody's deepest regrets now. In times of crisis, he could count on his brothers. But the space in age between Brock and the rest of the Gentry boys had left the youngest boy on his own more times than not.
In the beginning, it was always the three of them, tamping down hay fields, running tracks in the high grass as they played cowboys and Indians. It had been a daily event, dashing through the vast playground that was theirs. Something as simple as finding the skeleton of a cow was like the biggest archeological find to three young boys out on an exploration. Bringing that find home to show their dad had their chests puffed out with pride.
Back then, their dad was just their dad. A cowboy from the cradle like his old man, and his before him. He used to say the land owned him, not the other way around.
But that had changed when Hank Promise moved in and bought the property now known as the Double T Ranch. The father Cody had known and loved had changed. And it had changed them all. Nothing ever felt the same again.
But what used to be was now all stored in his mind in a vivid spectrum of color. Now all he saw when he opened his eyes was a cold blackness.
The dog was getting closer, Cody realized with uneasiness. The prance of running paws on the ground grew louder and louder still until he could hear the dog panting. What was the dog's name again?
Before he could gather himself up and stand, the dog was by his side, licking his face.
"Knock it off," he groused, pushing the dog away with one hand while trying to stand. Despite his attempt to keep it back, a smile tugged at his lips.
"Otis, heel," Lyssa commanded, still from a comfortable distance. That little bit of time allowed Cody to stand up on his own without having to deal with the awkwardness of declining help.
The dog was still by his side, panting.
"Your name is Otis, huh?" He reached out and immediately the dog nuzzled his face to Cody's palm, allowing him to scratch behind his ears. He bent his head to get closer to the dog and whispered, "Don't get too used to this. I'm really a mean old bugger," he said with a slight chuckle.
Otis barked and Cody laughed.
In truth, he'd always loved dogs, all animals really. Something about what this dog represented gnawed at him though. It wasn't the dog's fault.
"Score one for Otis. You two look like best buddies already."
He heard the smile of satisfaction in Lyssa's voice and he snatched his hand away.
"Don't you keep your dog on a leash?"
She was out of breath, Cody realized, as if she'd run a mile. And with that image, he pictured the rise and fall of her chest as she took in air.
It wasn't good for him to think about Alyssandra McElfen, or whatever her name was, as a woman. The scent of her drifted to him on a slight gust of wind. A hint of vanilla mixed in with the sun-baked grass and dirt and gave Cody a heady feeling he wanted to shake off.
"Actually, I only keep him on his leash when he's in training, so he knows he's working. When he can
roam free and exercise I let him. He's a working dog, but he's still a dog."
Otis was back for more affection and Cody obliged before he could think otherwise.
"He's tall. What breed is he?"
"German Shepherd. Most guide dogs are retrievers because their temperament is good and consistent. But we use shepherds, too. He's beautiful, not just his color and stand, but his personality. He's such a sweet thing."
"Now where have I heard that before?"
She chuckled and Cody had the amazing image of Lyssa's nose crinkling just slightly, the mental image of it making his head swim. He wondered how true that was.
"Don't let him scare you off," Beau called out. This time the sound of his voice was closer than it had been before he'd sat down. Terrific. Now he had to deal with his brother too.
"She's the one that brought the beast," Cody said sarcastically.
"I was talking about you and you know it." He could tell Beau had turned toward Lyssa by the change in his voice.
"Cody's been an ornery old goat since the day he was born. Never forgave Doc Masterson for swatting his behind. But we keep him around for laughs."
"At least I'm not ugly."
"Says you," Beau shot back.
"Did you have anything to do with this?"
"Lyssa? Hell no, that was all Dad's doing, but I'm glad he did. It'll be nice having some female company on the ranch again."
The smile in Beau's voice was like fingernails to a chalkboard.
"Mandy ought to appreciate that."
"Mandy is the one who introduced us. She picked Lyssa up from the airport."
"Your wife is very nice," she said, the smile in her voice so obvious that it had Cody gritting his teeth. She hadn't talked to him that way.
"Great, so everyone knows everyone now. Everyone likes everyone. Now I can leave."
Beau's sigh was more of a grunt. "Well, if it were my choice I'd haul you out to the back of the barn and beat you with a board like an old rug just for your rudeness. We were raised better than to treat our guest with so little hospitality."
"I learned from you."
"Hey, you were still getting your dirty diaper changed when I was standing up by the—"
"Enough already!"
No one answered and Cody took the few seconds of silence to calm himself.
"Sorry about that, ma'am," Beau finally said, quietly.
"Lyssa," she corrected, her voice soft and sweet as summer rain. It irked Cody to no end how the smoothness of her voice changed when talking to Beau. With him, she'd been sharp, her voice holding little of the warmth he heard now.
He supposed he deserved it. No, he had deserved it. He'd been a horse's behind earlier. Had he been this ill-mannered with company as a child he probably would have been hauled out behind the barn for a whippin' by his old man.
Cody turned to leave, and a wave of panic smacked him square in the chest. His head began to swim when he realized he had nothing to hold on to, nothing to ground him but the vast earth beneath his feet. Somehow in the commotion of the dog, the conversation, he'd gotten himself turned around and now had no idea which direction to take back to the house.
He hated it. Hated the helplessness consuming him. Hated even more that now he was forced to swallow a baseball-sized lump of pride and ask for help.
"I need to finish up with Sweet Sassy's Smile before I can get back to the Double T. Maybe you can talk this old bag into showing you around, Lyssa. It was nice meeting you."
"Likewise."
To Cody, Beau said, "Sassy's coming along real nice. You ought to think about coming out to see her. I can't imagine why but I think she misses you."
Cody's heart squeezed. Sweet Sassy's Smile, his four-year-old cutting horse, was his pride and joy. For two years he'd been training her every day. That is, until the accident. He'd never felt more connected to any living creature as he did when he was riding her, whether in the arena or out in the fields. It had been a long time. Too long. It hurt too much.
"You think about it." Cody could hear Beau's wide strides move along the grass, then hit the dry dirt as he walked away.
A cold ache settled inside him. He shouldn't be at war with his brother. The things they'd argued about as kids didn't matter now, and maybe they never had. But to hear Beau talking about Sassy, knowing he was enjoying the very thing that had driven Cody his whole life, tore into his soul.
Now Beau was gone and he was alone with Lyssa, the savior his father brought to the ranch to exorcise the demons from his son's soul. Or at least get him a little further than from the house to the pool.
A gust of breeze kicked up some dust and blew it his way. He had no choice, Cody realized. Asking Lyssa for help now would be like saying yes to this ridiculous plan they all had to bring him out into the world again.
Just get it over with, he told himself sharply. He could lock himself in his room later if he wanted. Until then he could handle this much humiliation.
Before he could push the words past the prideful lump in his throat, Lyssa said, "I need to unpack my things and put out a bowl of water for Otis. If you don't mind, I would appreciate you showing me to my room."
He would have sighed with relief if he didn't catch himself. "Showing" Lyssa to her room would be easy as long as he kept up conversation and followed her to the house.
Maybe she knew that or sensed his panic. If his father had hired her, she must have been working with the blind for some time and knew he was standing there practically wetting his pants with fear. She was a smart woman for handling him when he didn't want to be handled at all and for that, a smile crept up inside him.
"After you," he said smoothly. And thank God, he couldn't see her smug smile.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

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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