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Authors: Cheryl L. Brooks

Cowboy Heaven

BOOK: Cowboy Heaven
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Copyright © 2015 by Cheryl Brooks

Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover design by Dawn Adams

Cover image © Rob Lang

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

www.sourcebooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file with the publisher.

For my pal Angela.

She wanted me to write a story about cowboys.

I gave her a whole bunkhouse full of them.

Chapter 1

There he was again. That same cowboy I'd seen on the drive into town, still walking, still carrying a big green duffel bag on one shoulder and a saddle slung over the other. He'd been traveling in the opposite direction and hadn't bothered to look up as I'd passed him earlier. I'd barely glimpsed his face then, but I saw it quite clearly now. A glance over his shoulder revealed his bleak, exhausted expression. He might have been near the point of collapse, but he obviously wasn't prepared to admit defeat.

Not yet, anyway.

I couldn't believe no one had picked him up in the three hours since I'd last seen him. He hadn't looked very fresh even then. I had no idea where he was headed, but in the middle of Wyoming, there wasn't much within walking distance, no matter where you were going.

He turned toward me, sticking out a halfhearted thumb as I came closer, his face streaked with dirt and sweat and what might have been tears. A black Stetson shadowed his eyes, and his boots and jeans were dusty and worn. His sweat-soaked denim shirt clung to his chest, unbuttoned halfway to his waist, the sleeves ripped out. He probably wasn't trying to look cool, even though he did. No, he was likely trying to
get
cool, in any way he possibly could. My truck was air-conditioned and comfortable, and there was plenty of room for him and his meager belongings. I could no more have left him there than I could have ignored a starving child.

As I pulled over to stop, his eyes closed and his lips moved as though uttering a prayer of thanks. His knees buckled slightly, and for a moment, I thought he truly would collapse. Instead, he took a deep breath and stood up straight. Lifting his chin, he aimed luminous blue eyes at me and flashed a dazzling smile. His silver belt buckle suggested this man was no ordinary ranch hand but a down-on-his-luck rodeo cowboy who, unless I missed my guess, was heading for Jackson Hole.

A real heartbreaker of a rodeo cowboy, too. Up close, he was even more handsome than he'd been from a distance. Long and lean with tanned, muscular arms, dimples creased his cheeks and black hair curled enticingly from the open edges of his shirt. Several days' growth of dark beard surrounded full, sensuous lips, darkening a jaw that my fingertips ached to caress. More ebony curls peeked from beneath his hat, making me long to yank off that Stetson to discover what else it was hiding. Oh yes, there was enough gorgeous cowboy to sway a much stronger woman than I ever claimed to be. Tears stung my eyes as something in his expression reminded me of Cody.

My
dear, sweet
Cody…
He'd been gone for two years now, but I hadn't forgotten that look, and I doubted I ever would.

Determined to mask my roiling emotions, I searched for something amusing to say as I rolled down my window. “Lost your horse?”

My clever tongue was rewarded with another heart-stopping smile. Cody used to say funny things just to make me giggle—which wasn't difficult since I tend to find humor in nearly any situation—but brushing up on my own repertoire of one-liners to keep this guy smiling seemed like an excellent idea.

His grin was sheepish as he tipped up the brim of his hat. “He sort of drove off without me.”


Drove
off?” I scoffed. “Somehow I doubt that. Seems like he would've needed help.”

My handsome cowboy gave me a grim nod. “Oh, he had help all right. My girlfriend dumped me on the highway and took off with the truck, the trailer, and the horse—all of which were actually hers, by the way. She was kind enough to leave me my saddle and my clothes, although a cell phone would've been nice.”

I shook my head. “Nice, yes. Helpful, no. They don't work very well around here. Which kinda makes me mad—I mean, where would you need a phone more than if you were stranded out in the middle of nowhere?”

He glanced around at the vast expanse of sunbaked rangeland. “Is that the name of this place? Nowhere?”

“Sure is.” I couldn't help giggling. “Want to get out of nowhere?”

“Yes, please,” he replied. “And as quickly as possible.”

“Throw your stuff in the back and hop in,” I said. “We'll leave nowhere and go…somewhere.”

He did as I suggested, and suddenly the interior of my truck was filled with the pungent aroma of hot, sweaty, dusty—but cologned—cowboy. He'd most likely showered that morning, but it had been one helluva day. The forecast called for the upper nineties—quite a heat wave even for mid-August—and though the humidity was low, some temperatures are best avoided no matter how dry the air.

“You're a lifesaver,” he said. “I thought that sun was gonna roast me alive.”

“As hot as it gets in these parts, I never go anywhere without water, enough food for a couple of meals, and an umbrella in case I'm ever forced to hike. Want a sandwich?”

“You bet.”

I tossed a nod over my shoulder. “The cooler's on the backseat. Help yourself. There's plenty of water.” Although, at that point, a cold beer probably would have been his first choice.

He pulled out two bottles of water and a sandwich, downing the first bottle in three swallows.

“Better now?”

“Much.”

“Let's see now…” I said as he unwrapped the sandwich. “A cowboy dumped in the middle of nowhere with a saddle and no horse. There's got to be a country song in that.”

“If you mean a song about a guy bein' picked up by a girl in a flatbed Ford, I think the Eagles already did that one.”

“I love that song,” I said wistfully. “Guess I always wanted to be that girl.”

“Well, now you are.” He took a bite of the sandwich, chewing it quickly. “How does it feel?”

“Not much different.” This wasn't entirely true. I wasn't in the habit of picking up gorgeous cowboys—and this particular cowboy's presence had me feeling strangely excited. Oh yes, I was very aware of him, and if my brain hadn't noticed him, my erogenous zones were there to remind me. “For one thing, this isn't a flatbed Ford, and I'm not what anyone would call a girl anymore.”

He paused in mid-bite. “Why? Have you had a sex-change operation?”

“Nope,” I replied with another giggle. “You can't call a forty-two-year-old a girl. Well, maybe you could if you happened to be eighty-two yourself, but I'm pretty sure I outgrew the girl category a long time ago—about the time that song was popular.”

Despite the fact that I never once took my eyes off the road, I was aware of his prolonged scrutiny—an assessing gaze that left delightful tingles in its wake.

“Some things improve with age.” He turned toward the window. “You don't seem like the type to dump a guy in the middle of nowhere.”

Having heard the catch in his voice, I did my best to keep my tone light. Bursting into tears in front of a perfect stranger probably wasn't on his bucket list. “True—unless he was really obnoxious.”

This particular cowboy would have to have been homicidal or, at the very least, abusive for me to throw
him
out. He was the most adorable cowboy I'd ever laid eyes on, including the one I'd married.

“I wasn't being obnoxious.” He fairly bristled with indignation, which seemed to have won out over heartbreak. “I was
asleep
. I thought she was stopping for gas when I felt the truck slow down. She asked me to take a look at the tires on the trailer, said she thought one had gone flat. While I was checking the tires, she dumped my saddle and duffel bag on the side of the road and drove off. I found this tucked into the saddle.” Reaching into his shirt pocket, he handed me a torn, sweat-soaked scrap of paper.

It's not working out. Sorry.

“Ouch,” I said with a sympathetic wince. “That's pretty hard.”

“Yeah.” With an absent nod, he stuffed the note back into his pocket. “I don't even know what I did wrong. Don't guess I ever will.”

He seemed nice enough, and he certainly wasn't ugly. Maybe his girl had breakup issues. As irresistible as he was, I couldn't imagine breaking his heart while gazing into those eyes of his, and I didn't even know his name.

She'd probably gone about it the best way possible—a quick, clean break before losing her nerve completely. One glance, one smile, and she'd have forgotten why their relationship wasn't working. I wasn't looking forward to dropping him off at the crossroad to the ranch, myself. I had a sudden, overwhelming urge to take him home and wash him, feed him, and tuck him into bed—
my
bed, to be precise.

I had my doubts about that part. He couldn't have been more than thirty, and young men generally didn't seek solace from older women—not that kind of solace, anyway. Consoling him seemed impossible, so I changed the subject.

“Where were you headed?”

“The rodeo in Jackson Hole,” he replied. “I'm a rodeo cowboy.”

“No shit,” I drawled. “I'd never have guessed that. I don't suppose your girl left you with any money, did she? I mean, I'm not going to charge you for the ride or the lunch, but I'm not going all the way to Jackson Hole, either.”

“I didn't figure you were.” His downcast expression suggested his hope that he'd been wrong about that. “But at the time, I didn't really care.”

“Neither did I. I wouldn't have left you there no matter where you were going. It was…well, let's just say it was something I couldn't bring myself to do.”

“Pick up lots of strays, do you?” Turning sideways, he leaned back against the door, a move that not only drew my eye, but also gave me a full-frontal view that made my breath catch in my throat. Oh yes, I'd taken in lots of strays, but none that were anywhere near as attractive.

I shook my head. “Actually picking them up usually isn't necessary. They all seem to know where I live.”

“If you don't mind my asking, where
do
you live? I mean, are we close?”

Obviously, he hoped I lived somewhere near Jackson Hole. I hated to disappoint him. “It's about another twenty miles—most of which are
not
on the main highway. I'll let you out at the turnoff, if that's okay with you.”

His face fell, but he nodded, apparently resigned to the fact that this ride wasn't going to be more than a brief respite. “Not much choice, is there?” He gave a fatalistic shrug. “I don't have enough money on me to pay you to take me to Jackson Hole. I really should pay you for what you've already done.”

I caught myself wishing that he
did
have enough money—or that he would ask me to run off with him and follow the rodeo circuit, never going home at all. I would have loved to throw caution to the wind and do just that, but I had too many responsibilities. Not only did I have a ranch to run, but I also had my father and my kids to look after.

No, scratch that. Chris and Will were both in college. I had a hard time remembering that except when confronted with the sight of their empty rooms as I passed by them every day. Out on the highway I could pretend they were both there at home waiting for me—and Cody, too.

No, regardless of how much money this man might offer to pay me, I couldn't shirk my duties and simply up and disappear. Nor would I accept his money. He obviously needed to hold on to what little he had stashed in those jeans.

“I couldn't possibly take money from you,” I protested. “I wouldn't be much of a Good Samaritan if I did, would I?”

“I suppose not.”

He shrugged again and we drove on in silence. Remaining slouched against the door, he draped his left arm across the headrest and bent up one knee, stretching his legs apart enough that my eyes were continually landing on that section of blue jeans due south of that big, silver belt buckle. From time to time he shifted his hips as though my glances made him uncomfortable, and while I
did
try to keep my eyes on the road, every once in a while they would stray back to him—and that enticing bulge in his jeans…

“What would it take to get you to drive me all the way to Jackson Hole?” The hint of suggestion in his voice startled me almost as much as the abrupt nature of his query.

Suddenly, my mouth was as dry as a gulch. Reaching for my bottle of water, I took a sip and stole another peek at him. Those luminous eyes peered at me from beneath lids that were heavy with sensuous intent.

His lips curled into a provocative smile. “I'd be willing to bet there's
something
I could do for you that would pay you back—or at least make it worth your while.”

I'll just bet you could
.
Something
quite
remarkably
wonderful…

Aloud, I said, “Such as?” hoping that my voice sounded more innocent than my thoughts.

He shifted his butt on the truck seat with a slow pelvic thrust. “Pull over and I'll show you.” Glancing over his shoulder at the road ahead, he nodded toward the big cottonwood that was as much of a landmark for the turnoff as the road sign. “There. Under that tree.”

My brain told me to keep driving, but my hands and feet ignored that directive, choosing instead to follow orders from my more primal body parts. I parked the truck in the shade and turned to face him. “This is where I let you out.” Despite having cleared my throat before speaking, my voice still sounded a tad hoarse.

“You're not dumping me, are you?” His tone was teasing, but at the same time he managed to sound rather hurt that I would ever do such an awful thing to him. “I couldn't possibly get dumped again. Not twice in one day.”

“No, this is where I make the turn toward home,” I replied with a trace of regret. “This is where I said I'd let you off.”

He nodded slowly, tipping his hat back with a finger to the brim. “Mind if we sit here and talk for a minute?”

“I suppose not. I'm not in any big rush to get home.” Quite honestly, I could have sat there gazing at him for at least another hour or two. He was candy for the eyes, and I was starving to death.

BOOK: Cowboy Heaven
12.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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