Book Genre: Contemporary Western Romance

Cowboy Refuge

Title: Cowboy Refuge
Series: Howelton Texas #1
Genre:
Release Date: April 7, 2020
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A fragile heart, damaged from a devastating loss, must build walls for protection. The threats of an ex-con drive a mother to extremes to protect her son. With two souls hesitant to trust, will they find the forgiveness and freedom to love?

The last thing Ward Ramsey expects to find is Jayme Bonner on his doorstep, applying for his ranch hand position with her young son in tow. The complicated situation makes him want to turn her away, but the desperation in her eyes reaches him in an unexpected way.

Jayme never thought she'd be fleeing for her life and the safety of her son. Ward’s North Texas ranch could be the sanctuary she needs, and she throws herself into the job with all of her ranching knowledge and skills. As the two work closely together, feelings neither expected grow, and a passion hot enough to heat the cool nights ignites.

As love blossoms and long-held barriers fall, danger creeps into their newfound happiness. When Ward is injured by the ex-con hunting Jayme, the determined ranch hand decides it's time to take the battle to the hateful man out to kill her.

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Chapter One

With her son, Dusty, asleep in the bedroom, Jayme Bonner picked up the forgotten mail and shuffled through it, her gaze freezing on the last, unexpected envelope sporting the logo of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Collapsing on the couch, mind in lock-down, she feared what this might mean.

Hands shaking and tensing her muscles for impact, she ripped opened the letter, growing instantly lightheaded as blood drained from her face. Dirk Blacke still had six years left on his sentence, and they’d let the man out of prison. When she was notified of the hearing, she’d been assured there was little chance he would be released because of his list of infractions inside. Blacke had attacked her and tried to kill her. Unable to face being in the same room with the hateful man, she hadn’t attended. Now that he was free, he’d keep his promise to finish her off. She had to protect Dusty. She had to run.

Two weeks later, Jayme opened her grit-filled eyes to the first light of dawn. Dew dappled the windshield and she rubbed her cold hands together to warm them. Dusty lay across the seat with his nest of golden curls in her lap. Even after sleeping another night in her old truck, her boy never complained. He tried so hard to make things easier on her. At eight-years-old, he cared more for her needs and feelings than any grown man ever had.

After leaving her last job in the middle of the night, without giving the foreman more than a note in the darkened barn, she’d run fast and hard from the hateful convict on her trail. Dusty was her life—she’d do whatever it took to protect him. Against this threat, running was her best and only option.

In the rear-view mirror, the dark circles under her eyes were testament to her exhaustion. She massaged her temples. They’d traipsed from one small North Texas town to another, stopping in at every feed store and gas station asking for leads on work. There were three more months of school left this year and Dusty was falling behind. Every day lost increased the pressure.

She was a ranch hand, but being a woman looking for a man’s job was no easy thing. A tip the day before had seemed promising, but it turned out to be an offer for more than ranch work after the guy had gotten an eyeful of her. And she damn sure didn’t want a job like that.

Lord, please let me have some luck today. My boy needs to be in school. She was down to her last fifty dollars and that didn’t go far when you were driving an old Chevy truck. She hated that Dusty had been living on the cheapest food she could buy for the last couple of days. She clenched the steering wheel until her knuckles cracked. Something had to change.

Starting up the truck, the engine loud in the quiet of the sleepy town, she patted Dusty’s soft cheek as he turned over and lay on his side.

She drove out of the little parking lot of the saddle store in Throckmorton and headed down Highway 380. There were some sizeable ranches up thataway in Haskell and Stonewall counties. Surely, Howelton, where she was headed, held more promise than the other towns they’d been through recently.

After thirty minutes of driving past green wheat fields running into the flat horizon, she came to the small farming community. The donut shop coming up on her left was more than she could resist. Her son needed a treat and he loved donuts more than anything in the world.

The truck’s engine stopped and the constant vibration from the old engine stilled. In the silence, Dusty sat up and knuckled his face. He spied the display through the picture window and turned wondering eyes her way.

She nodded her head and grinned.

Throwing his slender arms around her neck, he squealed like a baby pig and jiggled his short golden curls.

She laughed and tickled him. Her son had a way of lifting her heart, even on the toughest days.

He shrieked, “You’re going to make me wet my pants.”

“Come on in, honey. Use the restroom while I get your donut and some coffee.”
“I’ll be quick.”

He hauled his cute little butt into the store and asked where the bathroom was. She shut her door, her own rear end sore from having slept sitting upright night after night, and walked inside.

A plump woman with kind, gray eyes stood behind the ancient wood-and-glass display. As Jayme came up, she said, “Good morning. How can I help you?”

The aroma of coffee and fresh, hot bread filled the warm air. Jayme’s empty belly rumbled loudly. She reached for it. Had the store clerk heard?

The woman grinned. “Sounds like you got here just in time, hon.”

She’d eaten very little in the past few days, after giving Dusty most of what she could afford. It was no wonder her stomach was complaining. Jayme smiled tentatively and pointed at the fluffy glazed creations. “I’ll have a large black coffee and one of those donuts, please.”

The woman poured her coffee, snapped a tight lid on the tall cup, then slipped a donut in a bag and gave them to her. Dusty skipped back into the room with an excited smile.

Jayme paid for her purchase and gave him his breakfast. “Here you go, buster. Enjoy.”

Dusty peered inside the small brown bag and frowned. “What are you going to eat?”

She swiped his hair out of his eyes. “I’ll have something later.”

He stared at the old hardwood floor, all the joy in his treat gone. “You’re hungry, too.”

Her little man, always looking after her, trying to be the man of the house. “Just eat your donut, hon. We’ll find something for me soon. This town has great vibes. There’s bound to be work here.”

He stood still, his face stubborn.

Oh, hell. She turned toward the counter to order another donut.

The lady handed her a bag. “No charge. I swear you deserve one for raising such a sweetheart.”

Tears burned Jayme’s eyes, and she lost track of what the woman was saying.

Dusty tugged on Jayme’s sleeve. “Mom, did you hear that?”

“What, honey?”

“She wants to know what kind of work you’re looking for.”

Jayme quickly wiped at the corners of her eyes. “Thanks for asking, ma’am. I’m a ranch hand and I’m desperate for a job. We’ve been looking a while, and that old truck drinks gas like a drunk on Saturday night.”

The woman sighed and shook her head. “My name’s Noreen. I’m telling you now so’s you’ll know who to cuss when you leave this job in your rear-view mirror. You’ll find work out at Ward Ramsey’s place. That ornery son-of-a-gun can’t keep help for nothing.” She tore off some register receipt and wrote down directions to the ranch.

Jayme thanked her for her kindness as her belly worked its way into a knot. She didn’t have it in her to trust men much, but her managers had never been jerks. No matter what this Ramsey was like, though, she had to try.

A half-hour later, Jayme and Dusty passed the cattle guard under the wrought-iron sign of the Double R Ranch. Peering down the road, she didn’t see anything like a ranch house in the distance. After driving a mile or so past wheat fields and grazing Black Angus cattle, she came to a mesquite pasture. Eventually rounding a bend, there appeared an old, fort-like, adobe-and-rock ranch house. She hoped they would end up at a barn. Soon they took a hard right at a thick copse of mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus. A well-built steel barn came into view with a dark-blue Ford truck parked in front.

She pulled up next to the truck and ruffled Dusty’s hair. “Stay here and don’t make a peep. You know the drill, right, hon?”

“Yep. Nobody wants a kid problem. I’m not here until you say so.”

“Well, I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but yeah, you’ve got the idea.”

He wadded up their night-time blanket into a pillow, lay down on the seat, and closed his eyes.

Happiness swelled her chest for the first time in a while. He really was a great kid. She got out and stood for a few seconds, composing herself and saying a little prayer. The morning sun was kind to her skin, not yet blazing as it would be later in the day. God, she needed this job so badly. With a deep breath, she strode into the barn.

Though the doors let in the sunlight, no one was inside. Pitch forks and shovels hung in an orderly row, and boxes and bottles were stacked neatly on shelves—signs of a well-run ranch. She breathed in the light manure scent of healthy cattle and a whiff of the round bale of coastal hay near the rear.
Heading down the aisle, she eyed the dark cows in some of the stalls to her right. The double doors in the back were open.

A clear, masculine voice came from the small pasture behind the barn.
She exited the building and laid eyes on the source of the sound. Goose bumps ruffled the hairs on her arms. If this was Ramsey, he couldn’t be further from the cantankerous old coot of Noreen’s description. Jayme stared at a strikingly handsome man armed with a stock whip, moving some cows and calves toward a corral.

Her gaze roamed over his lean, broad-shouldered frame. His sculpted, sun-browned jaw clenched, leading to a frown on full, sensual lips. He tossed dark hair from his forehead. She caught her breath at an unwelcome ache in her core. Closing her eyes, she blocked his sexy body from her sight.

As soon as the cattle were in the corral, the gate slammed. She backed inside to the cool shade of the barn, waiting for him to enter.

Walking in, he hardly spared her a glance, though that frown of his was firmly in place.

She came toward him, her heart beating like a drum. “Mr. Ramsey?”

“Yep.”

“I’m Jayme Bonner. Noreen, in town, said you might be looking for a hand. If you are, I’d like to talk to you about the job.”

He grabbed a pitch fork and pulled hay from the round bale then turned and looked her up and down. “For who?”

With a gulp, she steeled her resolve. This was always the hard part. “Me. I’ve been working ranches for years. I’m a damn good hand.”

He turned his back to her and forked more hay. “Don’t need a woman here. I need someone strong, who can work hard.”

She fidgeted from one foot to another and then caught herself. Please, let him see through his prejudice and give me a chance. “Well, that’s me. My old bosses gave me reference letters. Call them. They’re in Texas. They’ll tell you how hard I work and that I’m dependable.”

Without turning around, he shook his head. “You’re just not big enough. Can’t lift what needs lifting. Now, git.”

Stepping closer to him, she kept a note of desperation out of her voice. At least, she hoped so.” Please, just try me. I’ll prove I can do the job. Or take a minute to read one of the letters. It’ll tell you that I’m up to anything you put me to.” Oh, God, this has to work. I’ll beg if I have to. Dusty deserves better than what he’s been getting. I’ll do whatever it takes—well, almost.

She held out a reference letter, the paper crisp against her fingers. Take it, come on. Give me a chance.

Pausing, he turned around, his piercing stare shooting straight through her. He reached for the letter and read in silence. Finally, he looked up and studied her.
Warmth stole through her insides as he stared. Damn, the man was good-looking.

Then he grimaced, aiming that gaze of his over her shoulder.

She stood still, begging God to please help her land the job.

He shifted his hard gaze back to her. “I’ll give you a try for two weeks. Then we’ll talk. There’s a cabin. It needs some cleaning. Last assh—hand was a nasty son of a—” He puffed out a sharp breath and shook his head, muttering, “I’ll regret this. I know I will.”

Her knees went weak. Her mighty God had come through again. And not every ranch job came with a place to stay. Without it, the truck would have been home for her and Dusty until she could afford the first month’s rent somewhere.

She threw her hand out. “I promise, you won’t.”

Ignoring her hand, he stepped past her. “Follow me.”

Trailing Ramsey outside, her pulse racing with elation, she snuck a peek at her truck. Little smarty pants was still tucked away. The blue Ford backed out as she started hers.

She tailed Ramsey, her hands gripping hard on the steering wheel, as he followed the drive around and down about a half mile. A small, old-fashioned, faded-white house overrun with scruffy grass and weeds appeared. Behind it and down below glimmered a stock pond which would also provide water for the house since wells were rare in this part of the country.

Ramsey pulled up to the little house and got out.

She parked and walked over to stand near him.

He motioned to the house. “This has a key. It’s not locked since I didn’t clean it yet. Payday is every other Saturday.”

She nodded then headed toward her truck and opened the door. Heart in her throat, she said, “I need to mention something.” Dusty sat up, and she helped him out.

“Dammit! You didn’t say anything about having a kid!” Ramsey hollered.

Before she could speak, Dusty shouted, “Don’t yell at my momma! It’s mean!”

The man jerked his head back and blinked then took a closer look at Dusty, eyeing his thin little frame up and down. Ramsey nodded his head slowly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have yelled at your momma.” Tipping his hat to Jayme, he climbed into his truck, backing up and heading down the road toward the barn.

She let out a long breath and squeezed Dusty’s shoulder. “Thanks for standing up for me, son.”

The house had good bones with wood floors and a large picture window in the small living room. The place held very little furniture, but she could live with that. She’d learned not to acquire more than would fit in the back of her truck. She couldn’t very well search for work paying for a U-Haul. Taking whatever a bunk house offered was something she accepted. This house was a pig sty, though. They’d have to clean it before bedtime.

There was something else they needed to do first. Loading Dusty up in the truck, they went by the school to register him. She was thinking positive thoughts about her new job and the rancher who set her pulse to racing.

They got back to the little house and she started to work, first unpacking their clothes into the dresser in the bedroom. Her prized possession, Dusty’s current school photo, went on top. It was the only decoration that traveled with her wherever she went.
Thankfully, there were some cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink and she spent the afternoon scrubbing the house clean. A quilt her mother had made before Jayme’s birth went over the back of the worn couch, finally making the old cabin feel like home.

That night, sleep evaded her. Noreen had been right. Her boss was a hard man—just like her father. She fiddled with the covers and turned over for the second time. Remembering working with her cold, dominating father, she bit her lip. This job could be painful.

A loud sound woke her. Her head shot up. What time was it? She checked the clock on the bedside table. Eleven-thirty. Her cell phone pealed again. Hoping Dusty didn’t wake, she punched the green button and whispered, “Hello?”

“Hi there, bitch.”

Blacke! She gasped, cold terror racing through her limbs.

“That’s right. It’s me. You think you can hide? Think again. I’ll find you. And jail gave me lots of time to think about what I’ll do to you when I do. You and me? We’re going to have some fun. Sleep good now.” He hung up.

She lay there, clutching the phone and unable to move. Prison hadn’t changed him at all. He was coming for her. She shivered, suddenly icy cold and vulnerable.

She moved to the couch and covered herself with the quilt her mother had lovingly made. Its usual calming magic held no sway tonight. How could she protect herself? How could she protect Dusty? The man was brutal, insane when he was angry. His attack was proof of that. She’d never felt quite as alone as she did right this moment.

She needed a plan. She’d get rid of the phone. It felt tainted now that his horrible voice had come through it. Running her hand through her hair, she clenched a handful, pulling it tight. But, wouldn’t it be smarter to let him call her? He might slip and give her clues to his whereabouts or what he was planning. God, could she bear to hear his voice again? Let him threaten her?

They’d never spoken on the phone before. And in the years since he’d been in prison, she’d never considered that, as senior hand at the ranch, he might have had access to her phone number. She’d tried to put all thoughts of him and her rape as far from her mind as possible. That had been a mistake.

Ward Ramsey reached into the refrigerator for a cold beer. After being fidgety all afternoon, now he couldn’t sleep. A house over 150 years old was never truly silent. It creaked and popped and whispered all night long. He sat down in his recliner, needing the comfort of the room with its smoke-stained rock fireplace and worn leather furniture. How in the hell did he offer the woman a job?

The antique mantle clock ticking was the only real sound once he settled in at night, unless Skippy snored. His Australian Shepherd, asleep near the sofa, lifted his head and looked at him.
He heaved a sigh. He’d told the woman no, he didn’t need her, and the next thing he knew, he’d shown her the cabin. Shaking his head, he groaned. He had actually hired a female ranch hand.

When he’d walked in the barn and gotten a clear look at her, a hot jolt of desire surged through every inch of him. She was the first woman to get his blood pumping in a very long time. The direct way she stared at a man with those wide, green eyes surprised him. He felt the heat from that gaze pulsing all the way to his boots. She must have found being gorgeous wasn’t a bonus while working on a ranch.

Hell, she had a kid. He took a long swallow of beer. How had he not seen that coming? He expected her to let some kind of dog out. He couldn’t have that boy running around this place. A weight landed hard on his chest as he glanced at the photos on the mantle. Something he rarely did.

One was his wedding picture, taken all those long years ago. Elizabeth had been so beautiful and carefree that day. He shut his eyes and breathed deep, shuddering breaths.

He looked up again—apparently this was a night for scourging himself—and gazed at the other photo. His three-year-old son, Caleb, laughed at him, reaching out with his little palm open. Panting, he leaned forward and put his face in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. The accident should never have happened. He should have been with them.

He clenched his fists and groaned softly. If he were driving, he could have prevented the wreck. But he put the damn ranch ahead of his family one too many times. Elizabeth and Caleb had paid the ultimate price.

No, having the woman and her son here wouldn’t work. However, she had two weeks. As a man of his word, he’d keep it. Then she was out of here.

Jayme, jittery from lack of sleep, was at the school when the doors opened the next morning and sat with Dusty while he ate breakfast. Then she walked him to his new class and met his teacher, leaving the woman her phone number for emergencies. Now she just had to get permission from her hard-ass boss to pick up her son from his afternoon bus.

It was eight o’clock when she drove up to the ranch. Ramsey skewered her with those brown eyes of his as she entered the barn.

“You’re late,” he snapped. “Don’t make it a habit.”

Shaky all over after the threatening phone call last night, she found it hard to face her boss. Resorting to a detested nervous habit, she tucked a bit of loose hair behind her ear. “I took Dusty to his first day at school.”

When he didn’t make a comment, she chewed on her lip then asked, “What time do you want me here in the mornings? You didn’t say yesterday.”

“Seven-thirty. Start the feeding if I’m not here yet.”

She could do that. Dusty’s bus picked him up at a little after seven. “Sounds good.”

“I guess you ride?” he asked.

“Yes, sir, and rope.”

“Pull calves?”

She nodded. “Yes.”

He grunted and scratched his cheek. “Any experience on tractors?”

She nodded again. “John Deere, yes, sir. I can run a dozer and a backhoe, too.”

He narrowed his eyes, sizing her up. “Guess you mend fence all right, too?”

“Yes, sir. I can string a damn tight fence, as well.”

“Castrate?”

“Yes, sir.” She frowned. What was this? Twenty questions? Was he trying to trip her up?

He kept on. “Done any well or pump work?”

“No, sir.”

“I was beginning to wonder,” he grumbled.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing.”

Sucking in her bottom lip, she kept her peace. This man, the one who revved her pulse, was exasperating. But, in truth, he had the right to grill her. Couldn’t he be a little less grumpy about it, though?

He threw his thumb over his shoulder. “Go hook up my truck to the flatbed. We’ll buy a load of feed this morning.”

The trailer was on the truck when Ramsey walked over and got in the passenger side. He'd checked the lights’ connection on the trailer first.

It was jury-rigged and she’d had to work out the wires. He must have figured she wouldn’t get it right. He figured wrong and the look he gave her had some respect in it.

He said, “Drive back out to the main road. I’ll tell you where to go when we get into town. I get my stuff at Howelton Feed.”

Jayme glanced at her boss. His silence on the twenty-minute ride to town had been fine, but she was all too aware of his tall, hard body blocking the sun on the other side of the truck.

Ramsey drew quite a few interested looks, which he ignored, on arriving with an unfamiliar woman driving his rig. He left her in the truck while he did his business, but when he came back, he tossed a new light connection for the trailer on the truck seat. “You know how to put that on?”

“Sure do.”

“Good. You can do it when you get some time this week.” After that, he ignored her.
Which was fine with her. She couldn’t imagine what kind of conversation this grouchy man would find interesting.

When they returned to the ranch, he had her reverse up to the feed room. Shoving open his door, he nodded at the trailer. “We’ll unload. I’ll toss them to you.”

“Sure thing.” Her boss was a man of few words, all right. Turning her head to avoid watching his muscular shoulders bunch as he hoisted the feed, she grabbed the bag he sent flying her way.

His gaze tracked her closely as she easily caught and stacked the bags in the feed room. What was he thinking? Was he realizing how capable she was of doing this job or was he sizing her up as a woman like other men had? She hoped it was the former. It wasn’t good to have the men she worked with thinking of her as female, especially her boss.

She tossed another bag into her pile. What made such a handsome man wear that cold, hard look, anyway? He was so unfriendly. She hoped he got that stick out of his butt soon.

With both of them working, the job wasn’t so bad. While she closed up, he pulled the flatbed over and unhooked it by the other trailers.

Ramsey strode into the barn where she awaited his next orders.

Being tall and strong for a woman, she usually felt like one of the guys. But something about this big, rock-hard man made her feel small and surprisingly feminine. Not exactly what she wanted while she worked. Clearing her throat, she looked into the pen beside her.

Hands on his hips, Ramsey frowned and pressed his lips into a thin line. “We’ll take an early lunch. Be back here in an hour.”

She nodded as she watched him stride off. What was this attraction? How could she feel drawn to the man when he obviously couldn’t stand the sight of her?

A few minutes later, standing in her tidy little kitchen, she drank four glasses of water, her stomach growling. That would have to hold her until this evening. Her cupboards were bare. The remaining fifty dollars in her wallet needed to last as long as possible.

No way would it carry her two weeks. She had to ask for an advance, but not on her first day. And how she dreaded the asking. Standing on her own two feet was something she prided herself on. Even growing up with her father, she’d always felt alone. Caring for herself was a habit and asking for help came hard. But taking care of her boy was the most important thing in her life.

Maybe after work she could stop and buy a few things at the little grocery store in town—beans, milk, eggs, and such. She qualified for free breakfasts and lunches at school for Dusty. Dinner was her only worry now.

She took off her boots and socks and lay on the old bed in the small, stark bedroom, thanking God for finding this job. Instead of resting, however, her heart ticked like an overwound clock. The menacing phone call haunted her.

Dirk Blacke, after his first violent attack, would finish what he started. Nowhere felt safe. With her stomach burning, she turned over, staring at the age-stained wallpaper and smelling an old house that had been damp too many times. She focused on one thought—she had to protect Dusty and keep herself alive.

Tamping down hard on her fears, she clenched her fists. She was doing all she could. Maintaining a low profile and staying here in Howelton, far away from South Texas where Blacke knew to search was a good first step. This morning she wrote to her last boss, telling him where to mail her final paycheck, and asking him to keep her location secret. He was a good man and she knew she could trust him.

Pulling the extra pillow to her belly, she squeezed her eyes shut. The weight of her responsibility crushed her into the lumpy mattress like a thick layer of concrete.
Sleep had been hard to come by since receiving the parole letter. Her meager precautions seemed meaningless in comparison to the destruction Blacke could rain down on her.

She needed to ask about meeting Dusty’s afternoon bus, but it had never seemed like the right time. A tough guy like her boss would not be thrilled. Time was running out.

She kept a close watch on the time and was back at the barn in an hour, dreading the talk she needed to have with Ramsey.

The blue truck arrived shortly after.

The early-afternoon sun glared into her eyes. Her hands were trembling, dammit. Taking a breath, she clenched her fists and met Ramsey as he headed toward her, locking gazes with him. “The bus will drop Dusty off at ten minutes after four down at the end of the lane. I have to be there to pick him up. He does his homework while I work.”

Ramsey stared, eyes squinted nearly shut. “What if you’re somewhere that you can’t be there at ten after four?”

Dammit. He isn’t going to make this easy. She hardened her mouth. “I don’t plan on being somewhere that I can’t get him at that time.”

He thrust his head forward, squared his shoulders, and parted his lips to say something.

I can’t back down. I have to make this work. She cut him off. “Look, you’re my boss, and I know you can tell me where to go and what to do. I’ll work long hours and do every hard, nasty chore you assign me at this place, but the one non-negotiable is that I pick up Dusty when he gets here. I’ll go right back to what I was working at afterward. None of my bosses have ever had a complaint. I hope you’ll give me a chance, too.” She looked into his eyes, searching for some give, a hint that he might understand her need.

He stared, a dark frown on his face, and then nodded slowly. “Two weeks.”

Ward
Jayme

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Posted April 7, 2020 by janalynknight in / 0 Comments

shadow-ornament

True-Blue Texas Cowboy

Title: True-Blue Texas Cowboy
Genre:
Release Date: March 20, 2019
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A year after her husband’s death, beautiful Lee Granger is forced to admit she can’t handle running her ranch alone anymore. Following a tip from the local gossip, she hires Jesse Kincade, a retired PRCA calf roper, as her new ranch hand.

Jesse’s looking to buy a ranch of his own and to fulfill his dream of opening a roping school. The last thing he needs is to fall for his fiercely independent boss. But love happens when you least expect it. When Lee finds a girl’s body in one of her pastures, she relies on her law enforcement background to follow clues to the girl’s identity and the trail of the murderer. As she zeros in on her prey with a bull’s eye on her back, Jesse is all that stands between Lee and the deadly killer.

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CHAPTER ONE

 

Lee, feeling helpless, gripped Wess’s hand. His right arm and leg, now the color of a ripe plum, were swollen twice their normal size. Sweat saturated the pillow in a halo around his head. She squeezed his fingers. "Honey, I'm here." From her perch on the side of his bed, she couldn't bear the agony in his crystal blue eyes. Eyes that had loved her, laughed with her, and understood her every mood for the past nine years. His pain was her pain, and she searched her mind for something—anything she could do to make this more bearable for him.

Early this morning, he had thrown several blood clots, the angry color and swelling her first clue that something new was wrong with him. During his battle with stage IV colon cancer, that devastating villain had spread to his liver and lungs.

Wess blinked and wet his dry lips with his tongue. "Hey ... I love you." He shut his eyes, his brow creasing as he took a slow, deep breath. When he opened them again, he said, "I know you, Lee." He breathed in again. "You won't cry. You're going to sull up and ..." Coughing, he closed his eyes and sucked in air, then exhaled. "And all you're going to do is work. That's bullshit." He paused, as if gathering his energy. “When Megan died, I wanted you to talk to somebody, but you wouldn’t. You kept it all inside.”

“I talked to you. That’s all I needed.”

He sighed. “It wasn’t. I was hurting, too. I didn’t know what to say to take your pain away.” He breathed deeply again. “Lee, this time, you have to talk about it. You can’t hold it all inside. It’s too much. Promise me, honey, you’ll talk to someone.” He held her gaze as her old Wess had—strong, giving her no quarter.

She squeezed his hand. "Stop worrying about me. You need to concentrate on getting well. I'm counting on that, you hear me?"

He grimaced. "Don’t, honey ... it's over."

"It's not over. You'd better not quit on me, Wess Granger." She squeezed his hand hard, unable to stop the wetness overflowing her eyes.

He said softly, "I'm not quitting, sweetheart," swallowing, he continued, "but look at me. It's time."

Shaking her head sharply, she stood and pulled a clean pillowcase from the stack she kept near the bed. "Here, I'm going to change your pillow and get you a bottle of Ensure. You need some calories to perk you up. I don't want any more of this talk."

Tucking the pillow under her chin, she slid the new cover on. It shredded her heart that he hardly weighed anything. Lifting his shoulders, she slipped the pillow under his head, refusing to believe what Wess said. This couldn't be it. She wouldn't let it be. He still had more time. The nurse wouldn't have gone to see her other patient if she thought it was over.

When Lee turned to leave the room, Wess said quietly, "Don't. No Ensure." His eyes were closed. He patted the bed once. "Just you, here beside me." Opening his eyes, he breathed deeply, letting it out. "I want to hold my sweet wife."

Grief slammed her. How many times over the years had he said that? Hundreds? Thousands? And here, now, when he could barely move or talk, he said it again. Forcing a smile, she walked over to him.

First, she gave him morphine drops under his tongue for pain. Then, slipping her wranglers off, she slid the covers back. Carefully moving his arm, she snuggled against him and pulled his arm around her.

Wess sucked in a breath and exhaled, saying in a quiet voice. "Oh, I love you."

She couldn't help it. She cried, hiding it in the shift of her shoulders, scrubbing her face against his t-shirt to wipe the tears. Rubbing his stomach slowly, round and round his belly button the way that always put him to sleep, she kissed his shirt, whispering, "I love you, honey. Rest now."

#

Wess arched his back and moaned, waking her instantly. She sat up as he grabbed his chest, crying out again. He stared at her, panic in his eyes.

"What, baby? What is it?" Standing, she leaned over him, searching for the cause of his pain. His color was off—bluish. Why? God—the nurse. She scrambled around the bed and got hold of her phone as Wess groaned again. Punching the number, she said to him, "It's okay honey. I'm calling the nurse." Frantic, she stared at the silent phone. Why didn't the woman answer? The call rolled to voicemail. With forced calm, Lee said, "Amanda, call me back. Wess is in terrible pain. I don't know what's wrong."

He coughed and tried to talk, but she couldn't understand him. She sat on the edge of the bed, holding his hand. "Honey, hold on. Tell me what's happening. Please, honey." Shoving her terror down deep, she looked into his eyes.

"Heart ... fast. Heavy." Still clutching his chest, he grimaced in agony and closed his eyes, moaning and turning his head into the pillow.

She squeezed his hand. "Oh, honey. I love you. I don't know what to do." Sobbing, she covered her mouth. "Oh my God, I can't help him."

Wess panted quick, shallow breaths, then began to cough hard.

Lee slipped her arm under his shoulders and lifted him up, his swollen, purple arm wedged against her.

He coughed harder, a wet bubbly sound, and blood dripped from his mouth.

The thick red line traveled down his chin and on his clean white t-shirt. "Shit! Wess! Wess, I love you. I love you, baby. Stay with me." She looked at the phone clutched in her hand. Nothing. Nobody could help her now.

He quit coughing. He wasn't breathing! She felt for a pulse but couldn't find one. Throwing his pillow on the floor, she laid him flat on the bed, beginning quick chest compressions. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight ...

She stopped, hands on his chest. What was she doing? He'd made her promise—

promise on her life—that she wouldn't bring him back. That was one reason he hadn't gone to the hospital. He wanted to go out in his own time, in his own way. Lifting her hands, she stepped back.

Her gaze traveled over him, noting his blue eyes half open, mouth ajar, sweaty dark hair grown longer than he ever would have worn it when he was healthy. The blood on his shirt was a shocking exclamation point to his pallid skin. But through all that, she saw her man. Her handsome cowboy with his big Texas swagger who'd swept her off her feet. Wess was her one and only. The love of her life. He was all those corny fairy-tale things that nobody ever really got. But she’d had it all in him.

And he was gone. Gone! Just like that. I'm not ready! She turned and rammed her fist at the closet door. Again. And again. Knuckles bleeding, she slipped to the floor. Leaning her head on the wall, burning tears flowed down her ravaged face. I should have had more time, dammit. It isn't fair!

The phone rang. Her life alone, began.

 

Chapter Two

 

The headache Lee woke with pounded like a powwow drum. Her pasture bull had busted down the fence overnight and headed straight across the highway to pleasure himself with her neighbor's cows. She turned to Chowser, her black-and-white Border Collie. "Damn it. I'm going to get some help around here if I have to drive to Abilene and kidnap a homeless guy."

She yanked off her Stetson and wiped the sweat on her forehead, squinting into the noon sun. Her hands pressed her lower back, and she arched it as far as it would go, the fence-mending wire cutters still in her hand. Wild hogs had made a holy mess of the round bales, and at day break she'd forked up most of the loose hay and put it in the barn.

The soft, faded colors of a North Texas summer surrounded her. Since the highway department never seemed to get around to mowing, sun-washed grass on the side of the road reached her knees. The brightest color was the emerald of her wheat field before her, ending in the whispery green of the mesquite pasture in the distance. The sun created harsh shadows from anything strong enough to grow in this tough country.

Bud, her neighbor with a place nearer Woodbury, drove by in his old '69 Chevy truck and honked.

She threw a wave back.

Tendrils of hair had escaped from her pony tail, and a welcome breeze blew them across her face. There were tasks everywhere on this ranch that needed doing. She worked dawn till dark, and still important things went undone. It didn't used to be that way when Wess was alive, and she hurt deep-down that she couldn't keep up.

In the year since his passing, she'd become accustomed to being alone. Actually, she found she preferred it. She didn't need conversation if she couldn't have her husband's company. They'd been able to complete each other's sentences and knew in advance what the other would think was funny. He was the best thing that ever happened to her, except Megan, and now they were both gone. These were painful thoughts. Why in the hell was she thinking about them then?

Twisting the last piece of barbed wire in place, she jammed the wire cutters into her back pocket. Shaking her head, she glanced at the damn bull that was now eating peacefully with his harem. A whole morning wasted, thanks to that horny bastard. She slapped her worn leather gloves hard on her thigh as she strode to her truck.

Chowser stuck his head out the window as they headed into town to mail some bills. The little Woodbury post office wasn't open at lunch, but Pat, the postmistress and jack-of-all-trades, took pity on busy ranchers. She would answer the inner door if you rapped on it. Lee walked in, boot heels clamoring on the tiled floor, and tapped her keys on the glass.

Pat came and opened up. Before Lee could get a word out, Pat said, "Hey, are you still looking for a hand at your place?" When Lee nodded, she said, "Hurry and catch that handsome thing that just walked out. His name's Jesse Kincaid, and he may be looking for work."

Lee spun around and ran out the front doors. Jesse Kincaid? Lord, it had been a long time since she'd heard that name. Her heart remembered, though. Her pulse raced and blood flooded her cheeks. She started waving her arms over her head and advancing on his truck, realizing she must look like a mad woman.

He stopped backing up and pulled into his parking spot again.

Stopping at the driver's side window, she said, "Excuse me, Mr. Kincaid. I'm Lee Granger. My home spread's out at the fork of Highways 183 and 283. I'm looking to hire a full-time hand, and Pat, in the office there, said you might be looking for work." He was even more handsome than he'd been in high school.

He offered an unhurried smile and extended his hand. "Well, ma'am, nice to meet you." Then he said, "I'm looking to buy my own place, but I've been thinking. It wouldn't hurt to add a bit to my stake while I look for the right property." He turned and gazed out the windshield. "A lot's changed around here."

Lee liked the way he considered what he wanted to say before he spoke. Too many cowboys' fast-talking ways got them into trouble. He obviously didn't remember her. He had been three years ahead in school—a rodeo stud. "Well, Mr. Kincaid, if you're interested, why don't you come by my place this afternoon? Around five?"

He gave her a half-smile. "I will, ma'am. And call me Jesse."

She turned toward the post office, her heart still beating fast. Oh, yes. He'd grown from a good-looking boy into a heart-stoppingly handsome man. His dark-brown eyes and jet-black hair set off his richly tanned skin. Strong shoulders and biceps filled out the heavily starched long-sleeved shirt he wore. She stepped back into the post office and rapped on the glass again.

Pat came around the counter and unlocked the door. "What can I do for you, honey? Did you catch that Jesse?"

"I sure did. Thanks a bunch."

"Jesse's related to Bob and Beverly Kincaid. You know old Bob died at least ten years ago, and Beverly got too frail to live alone on the old homestead. She's moved in with her son and daughter-in-law in Breckenridge. And there's another son somewhere back east. Their daughter, Terri, married that no-account drunk that works at Allsup's and has three or four kids now, poor girl. Jesse's the boy who went off to rodeo. He's kept himself scarce, I guess."

Lee nodded. One thing about Pat—she knew everybody's business. She was dying to find out what Lee thought of Jesse, but Lee wasn't about to add more grist to the local gossip mill. The well-greased machine got along fine without her, and she liked it that way. As Pat walked back behind the counter, Lee handed over her three envelopes that needed mailing and bought a book of stamps.

When she left the building, her mind wandered back to the cowboy. She—like half the girls in high school—had a secret crush on him. Then after graduation he left for the pro calf-roping circuit, and she went off to college to learn how to be a peace officer. She hadn't thought about Jesse in years until the shock of hearing his name from Pat. Lee took a deep breath and forced it out. No more nonsense. At five o'clock she'd be all business.

#

Lee parked in the driveway, faced with the silent, empty house and old memories of her husband. She stared at the bright flowers she still worked so hard to care for. Wess had said that he always knew there was love in their home because it took lots of it to make flowers grow in this hot North Texas land. Losing him had broken her spirit in a way she'd never believed could happen. Why was it that today she couldn't quit thinking about losing him and Megan?

Stomping her foot against the floorboard, she crossed her arms on the steering wheel and rested her head on them. In her years as a Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper, she'd seen more than her share of tragedy. But when it came to her own, she couldn't find a place to stash it where it stayed put.

Eventually, she opened the truck door, and the loud creak reminded her that it needed oil—again. The billowing dust on the dirt roads she drove all day took a heavy toll on her equipment. She mentally added it to her endless to-do list and trudged through the garage, Chowser at her heels.

Sliding off her boots with the boot jack, she put her old leather work gloves on the side of the open washer, and wandered into the kitchen. She'd come back to the house to make something to eat but, feeling listless and without hunger to drive her, nothing in the fridge looked good. All she wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sleep.

She grabbed a pint of yogurt and a bag of baby carrots and sat in Wess's old recliner in the living room. The thing needed to be thrown out, but when she was in it, somehow, she could still feel his arms around her and smell his earthy man scent. She could pretend Wess was coming home, looking for a hug and a kiss, just like he used to before cancer ate his beautiful body down to bones.

After lunch, she pushed up from the recliner and pointed at Chowser. "Okay, you crazy thing, time to work. We have to put out hay today and, as usual, it's just me and you."

In the mud room she struggled into her snake boots, looking at Chowser's eager face. "Well, get off your butt and come on. Daylight's wasting!" He bounded out the door ahead of her.

It was four thirty by the time they headed back to the home place. Chowser jumped out the window and through the double doors of the barn before she pulled to a stop. He barked like hell in there—had to be that damn rattler again.

She'd just finished feeding the stock when Jesse drove up and she stepped outside to greet him.

He slid out of the truck and stood for a second, looking at her.

Damn. His six-foot-three frame and slim hips filled out a pair of Wranglers in all the right places. She'd been wrong. She wasn't all business.

He walked on towards her. "Ms. Granger, you have a nice place here. I noticed the flowers in the yard. Pretty."

The flowers ... Wess. Pain lanced through her heart. Her response to Jesse felt like a betrayal. She stood mute, despising herself. Then, striding forward, she offered her hand. "Thanks, and I'm Lee. Why don't you come inside where the sun won't be in our eyes?"

* * *

Jesse chewed his bottom lip. When he'd mentioned the flowers, Lee’s face had frozen, eyes darkening in pain. He almost reached toward her, wanting to wrap his arms around the beautiful woman and make that hurt go away. Then he’d laughed silently to himself. Not one thing about Ms. Lee Granger gave him a hint that she'd take kindly to being coddled.

Jesse followed her into the barn, taking in the details around him. Everything appeared well cared for, and he liked that. It was how he would run things when he bought his own spread. He glanced at Lee's strikingly beautiful face half-hidden under a straw Stetson. She looked up, and no-nonsense intense dark green eyes stared at him. Her slender female shape held no fat. Muscles gracefully curved her worn Wranglers, and she wore a T-shirt—her full breasts stretching the fabric just right.

His chest tightened. Powerful women were his favorite in bed. She was definitely a hard worker.

He clenched his teeth. And, wasn’t that what he wanted? He wasn’t here to flirt with a beautiful boss. He was here to work, period. With plans he'd striven years to implement, nothing could get in his way.

But that didn't stop him from looking. He guessed she was about five-ten. She kept sun-streaked brown hair pulled at her nape in a simple pony tail under that well-used Stetson. Strong cheek bones tapered to a full, kiss-me kind of mouth. His gaze stuck there, imagining what he could do with those lips.

Lee sat down on an upended bucket, and Jesse realized that she'd already been talking about the job and, dammit, he hadn't been listening. Taking a deep breath, he tuned in.

She said, "Since I've been alone here for the last year, things have really gotten out of hand."

Wait, what?

"Money's tight, so I haven't been able to hire anyone. But, recently, I sold 200 acres of one of my pastures for a real good price. I'm hiring you to help me, at least for a while, and I'll make some improvements around here, too."

 

Posted March 20, 2019 by janalynknight in / 0 Comments

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The Cowboys Fate

Three hearts, two towns, one impossible romance. Caleb has searched for his one true love and come up dry – until he hires beautiful ranching consultant, Eve Owen. His instant attraction to the golden-eyed woman is only deepened when he recognizes her intelligence.  Following several glorious nights, a bereft Caleb must say goodbye to Eve as she disregards the shocking result of their final loving and returns to her beloved Dallas-based business.

Sent from the sweeping expanse of his West Texas ranch, Caleb’s deeply romantic love notes keep Eve’s heart in turmoil. She loves her desert cowboy, but will his sensual, heartfelt words be enough to bring her back, despite the wealthy man who offers her the career opportunity of a lifetime along with a romantic proposal? Buy this unforgettable romance, The Cowboy’s Fate, now and find out.

Posted October 1, 2019
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