Genre: Contemporary Western Romance
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.
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.
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."
"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."