Cowboy On Her Porch

Cowboy On Her Porch

Pam Mantovani

July 2018 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-886-8

Some secrets should stay buried…

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt


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Some secrets should stay buried….

Audra Black is starting over, and the last thing she needs is another man. After all, she’s still struggling to get past the hell her ex-fiancé put her through. Now, she’s ready to move on to a new life, new possibilities. And the first thing she’s going to do is get her pottery business up and running. First, though, she needs to find an inexpensive place to rent as her studio—and rancher Carter Montgomery’s old barn would be ideal. All she has to do is convince him….

Carter’s been fighting his attraction to Audra from the moment he first met her. But then she makes him an offer he can’t refuse, and suddenly, she’s there, in his barn, in his house, all the time. The temptation is killing him. Only Carter doesn’t do relationships—everyone in town knows it. Lucky for him, neither does Audra.

Before they know it, they’re involved in the perfect, no-strings fling. Only Audra’s past is about to catch up with her. And when it does, she has to decide: Is it time for her to run again? Or is what she’s building with Carter worth fighting for?


Reviews


"A delightful romance. A sexy cowboy, ex-army Ranger. A strong, female sheriff. A secret baby in the form of a delightful little girl. And Pam Mantovani blends it all together seamlessly, making you want to read more of her work. What’s not to love?”

—Bestselling author Patricia Keelyn,
on Cowboy on Her Doorstep

"This story had it all—a war hero returns home to his cowboy roots. There was adventure with a bad, drug guy out to get the her­oine. And add to that, their one night stand before he left town left her pregnant with their daughter. There is a lot of drama, misunderstandings and romance. It was a good read and I enjoyed it.

—Gatorfan, Top 500 Amazon reviewer
on Cowboy on Her Doorstep.



Excerpt


Chapter One

AUDRA BLACK FROWNED at Carter Montgomery as they walked with his niece, Marissa, between them. Today, for the third time in more than a year, he’d refused her request to rent his old barn and convert it into a pottery studio. If she couldn’t find a way to convince Carter, or find an alternative space— something she’d tried to do previously, but with no luck—she would be in danger of not completing the orders she’d accepted during the Founders Day Festival. Carter’s barn would be perfect. And it wasn’t as if he was using the space. Plus, the barn would give her somewhere to live now that her rental had been sold.

She shifted to put a tiny bit of distance between them, even as she attempted to come up with another way to push him toward her goal. But before she could think of a different plan of attack, her attention was diverted. In the distance she saw Kendall, her friend and the woman who’d had a hand in saving Audra’s life, and her husband, Logan. He was cradling her stomach in his hands as he kissed her.

"What’s that about?” Carter asked.

Audra closed her eyes at the whisper of Carter’s breath that came over her shoulder and caressed her cheek. Almost like a soft kiss. But, thank goodness, she felt no fear. No, despite all the abuse she’d suffered in the past, she’d never been anxious or worried when around Carter Montgomery.

And that was both a miracle as well as a concern.

She’d been attracted to the cowboy from their first meeting. Something about his quiet manner had immediately appealed to her. Then, a little more than a year ago, those feelings had strengthened when she and Carter had followed tradition and danced as Maid of Honor and Best Man at Kendall and Logan’s wedding. Audra recalled the strength in his arms, in his hands, strength that he needed to work his ranch. Still, she knew all too well how strength could be used to hurt. But she hadn’t felt worried or nervous about Carter holding her. He’d never shown any signs of a temper. In fact, she’d never heard him raise his voice to anyone. And, oh, when he played with Marissa, whom he obviously adored, it tripped something in Audra’s chest.

That night when they’d danced, he’d held her close, secure, almost like a lover, without giving the impression that he was trying to control her. Instead, she’d felt cherished.

She remembered the heat of having her legs brush against his, the feel of his chest and his strong arms as he moved them around the dance floor. She recalled staring at the line of his jaw, wondering how it would feel to glide her fingertips just over that slight stubble darkening his chin. From there, her mind had filled with other images at an alarmingly wicked pace.

For the first time in more years than she could recall, she’d yearned for the luxury and glory of a shared intimacy.

Now, however, as she watched her best friend being kissed and held by her husband, Audra couldn’t stop her hand from pressing against her own stomach. She remembered the wonder of learning she was pregnant, followed closely, too closely, by fear of how the news would be met.

As Kendall and Logan, hand-in-hand, started toward them, Audra turned around. Beneath the brim of his cowboy hat, Carter met her gaze. His eyes were a darker shade of green than his brother’s.

Her heart stuttered at the way he looked at her, something that was happening with increasing frequency. He’d never made a move toward her, had never even attempted to kiss her. But if the interest she saw in his eyes was any indication, he felt the same cautious yet insistent attraction that she was experiencing.

"It looks as if they have news. We should let Kendall and Logan explain,” she said.

Carter looked down at his niece, then back at Audra. His lips twitched with a smile. "Does that mean you’ll be cooking dinner?”

She laughed, delighted by his comeback, and by his accep­tance of her refusal to steal his brother and sister-in-law’s thunder. "If I do, will you be staying?”

"I love Kendall, but there’s no comparing her cooking to yours.”

"I heard that,” Kendall teased as she and Logan ap­proached. Logan stepped over just in time to catch Marissa, stopping the little girl from jumping into her mother’s arms.

"So did I,” Audra said and cocked her head to study Carter. It was on the tip of her tongue to make a suggestion, to offer a barter of sorts, but she decided this wasn’t the time. Tonight was for celebrating Kendall and Logan’s good news. Besides, she needed more time to consider all the possibilities.

Along with the risks.

DURING THE NEXT two weeks, her plan took on substance as she worked to make a dent in her pottery orders. In fact, it was the work that cemented her intention. The tiny shop, little more than a shack actually, had been enough room for her when she’d been reacquainting herself with her pottery. But now, because her confidence had grown enough that she’d grown comfortable taking on more orders, she was quickly running out of room.

As she parked her car in front of Tammy’s Diner, Audra said a quick prayer that her car would start again when she was ready to leave. If she approached Carter with her still undefined plan, it would take just about every cent she had saved. The fact that she wouldn’t have to drive was another reason her idea of renting his barn would be so perfect for her.

"Here, let me help you.”

Audra jumped at the sudden voice behind her, banging her head on the raised trunk lid. "Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Audra glanced over her shoulder, relaxing when she spotted Kathy Davis grinning at her. That tiny nugget of fear disap­peared. She’d come to learn she could trust a small circle of friends, to accept their help and not worry that they had an agenda.

"I’m delivering something to Tammy,” Audra said.

"Then I’m sticking around so I get a first peek,” Kathy said, closing Audra’s trunk for her. "I’m in awe of what you can cre­ate.”

Floating on that praise, Audra used her hip to open the door to the diner. Ten minutes later, she was at risk of having a swelled head.

"You were right,” Tammy said, her hands curved around her skinny hips as she stared at the sectioned container that wouldconsolidate and hold all the assorted condiments on each table.

"I love the red color,” Kathy added.

"You know I’m going to convince you to go with the vases for each table,” Audra said, grinning.

Tammy eyed her. "Not yet, you’re not. But, I will say that these make me want to order some new coffee mugs. In that same red.”

Audra jerked in the first real fear she’d felt in months. The memory came so swift, so dark, she couldn’t push it away.

She’d gotten up early, knowing James would want his break­fast when he came into the kitchen. Because she’d been concen­trating on making sure the pancakes didn’t burn, she’d overlooked pouring his coffee. When he stepped into the kitchen to discover his empty mug beside his plate on the table, she realized her mistake. She’d turned around, forgetting the pancakes, and began apologizing. She hadn’t gotten far before he’d knocked her to the floor with his empty mug. She remembered him standing there, his feet straddling her quaking body, yelling at her, telling her how worthless she was. Then, after giving her a boot to the ribs, he’d left.

"Audra?”

She heard Tammy’s question, but couldn’t seem to shake free of the past. It wasn’t until someone wrapped a hand around her arm that she managed to regain focus on her surroundings. She looked into the face of Rhonda Johnston, the Sheriff’s office dispatcher.

"Tell me what you need,” Rhonda said quietly, her tone the opposite of her usual brashness. But there was a wealth of know­ledge in her gaze. Audra swallowed down the shame, refusing to let it beat her. Escaping from James, with Kendall’s help, had been a giant first step in regaining her independence and con­fidence. She would not go back to being the kind of woman who let someone else dictate her life.

That’s when she noticed the woman standing behind Rhonda, staring at her with shared knowledge in her gaze. Ellen Canby was on the verge of leaving the shelter behind and starting a new phase in her life. She was a reminder to Audra that anyone could overcome the pain of their past.

"Nothing. I’m fine.”

Rhonda nodded in approval. "At least sit.” She pulled out a chair, and with a gentle hand on Audra’s shoulder, guided her into it.

"I just got a little dizzy.”

Tammy offered Audra a glass of water before she left to serve a customer at the counter. Audra didn’t want to appear rude or ungrateful, but she couldn’t deal with this right now. She closed her hands into fists and shook her head. She didn’t want anyone to see how her hands trembled.

"Sorry.” She tried to smile, but could see from the con­cerned looks on their faces that they knew she was just putting up a strong front.

"You just sit there a minute longer,” Rhonda said.

"I haven’t been sleeping well lately. The place I’m renting has been sold—which means my pottery shed is gone too—and I’m at my wits’ end trying to find someplace else to live.

"I know someone with a place that might work,” Kathy said, adding an address on the east end of town.

"Roger Weaver’s place,” said Tammy, who’d come back to join them.

Kathy nodded at the confirmation. "He keeps his property in decent enough shape. If I remember right, there were some offices and a breakroom upstairs. It might work as a kind of apartment. Even though it’s been empty for some time, you’d still probably have to negotiate the rent. Plus, he won’t give you the time of day until you pass a credit check. This might be a small town, and he knows practically everyone around here, but he still makes everyone go through one.”

Audra couldn’t, wouldn’t, risk a credit check.

"I’ll think about it.” She stood, determined to be strong, and looked Tammy in the eye. "Now, about those mugs.”

FOR THE FIRST time in more than two years, Audra Black was going to ask for something she wanted. Nerves tripped along with her heart, but nerves didn’t worry her.

She’d handled far worse.

For the last three weeks, she’d considered every angle, pre­pared for every argument. She’d worked hard to shove aside the nightmare that had followed yesterday morning’s flashback at the diner. Now it was time to take action.

At least it had only taken two turns of the ignition for her car to start today. As she maneuvered onto the long drive leading to the Montgomery Ranch, she skimmed a glance over the open pasture. She couldn’t see Kendall and Logan’s ranch from this distance, although their land was adjacent to Carter’s, but it gave her a tiny boost of confidence to know her friend had found happiness close by. She hoped that soon they would once again be neighbors. Only this time, with much happier results. For both of them.

With the window down on her battered ten-year old car, she heard cattle and horses, even the crow of a rooster. Tree leaves were more gold and rust than green, and the air felt crisp. Soon the first snow would fall and the holidays would follow shortly after. Thinking of the magnitude of what she was attempting, Audra’s nerve faltered for an instant.

No, she reminded herself as she sat a little straighter in her seat. She refused to be afraid. Carter Montgomery might not agree with her suggestion—at first. But she also believed he’d hear her out, and then, maybe, give her a chance once he heard her proposal.

Her hands flexed on the steering wheel. So much depended on today’s visit. Still, she refused to believe it wouldn’t work out. She’d accepted all those orders with a blind leap of faith. Now, she needed to be equally brave in finding a way to fulfill them.

James would have accused her of being greedy, of only thinking of herself.

In defiance of her past, she held fast to the belief that her ex-fiancé had forgotten about her, dismissed her and her escape from him with the same casual disregard he’d once used while beating her.

Of course, should he ever cross her path again, he’d find her a vastly different person than the woman he’d known, who’d taken whatever he’d shelled out without a fight.

Audra drove around to the back of the two-story ranch house with the pale blue shutters and the welcoming wrap- around porch. In the distance, she saw the sun just over the edge of the horizon, almost as if it were a fireball sitting on a shelf. The timing of her arrival had been chosen carefully. She sighed as the object of her intent came into view.

The old barn needed painting, but she knew it was struc­turally sound. And just as important, it was large enough to handle all of her needs. The first time she’d been inside the building had been when she’d followed Marissa, who’d gone searching for one of the barn cats. Audra had not only walked around the interior, but had instantly envisioned how she’d set up her pottery studio. Since then, she’d tried several times to convince Carter to rent her the space. Every time he’d refused her, without explanation. He hadn’t been cruel, or angry at being asked. He’d simply said no.

Today, however, she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

As she cut the engine and got out of her car, she scanned the yard. She spotted Carter over by the corral. Her heart did a slow spin in her chest that even she recognized as basic lust. It gave her a brief second of hope that she might be capable of recapturing her sexuality. Inhaling a deep breath, she willed her heart back to a slow and steady pace.

She hadn’t come here to explore the surprising attraction she felt for the man.

At least not today.

Giving the appearance of being calm, though her nerves jangled beneath the surface, Audra lifted a package from the passenger seat. Carter said nothing, but kept his gaze on her as she walked to him. By the time she reached him, her heart trembled in her chest and her lungs labored with each breath. But it was excitement and anticipation that thundered through her. Not fear. And wasn’t that a lovely discovery?

"Carter,” she said by way of greeting.

"Audra.” His gaze dropped to take in the foil-covered dish in her hands before returning to hers. "What you got there?”

"It’s lasagna and buttermilk biscuits.” She smiled and held out the dish.

"Homemade, or that frozen stuff?”

"Homemade, both the lasagna and the biscuits.”

"Why?”

"Why homemade or why did I bring them out here?”

"Why here?”

Not for the first time Audra appreciated how Carter used as few words as possible. Unlike her ex, who acted as if he knew everything about everything, who always had a comment to add to any conversation, and felt he had to have the last word. She fought with her nerves while she gave herself a mental lecture to stop the constant comparisons.

"I thought, after a long hard day, you might enjoy some­thing you didn’t have to cook yourself. Besides, your brother’s married to my best friend,” she said. "That makes us practically family.”

His green eyes narrowed. Audra looked into those dark eyes and instantly thought of the kiln she’d recently invested in. Carter’s eyes were the wrong color for fire, but the raging heat necessary to set clay and make it hard—that was there.

"We’re not family,” he said in a low voice that set off a quiver in her stomach.

She knew he was as attracted to her as she was to him. She might not yet be ready, or willing, to respond to the attraction, but what vibrated between them was undeniable. So far they’d been cautious, keeping the curtain of friendship firmly in place. Or perhaps they’d hidden behind the illusion of family... not that she had a clue how a family, one that cared about one another, would behave.

However, since their dance at the wedding, she had often wondered about what it might be like to have sex with Carter. Because of his quiet nature, she’d believed the experience would be soft, gentle.

Now she could see it would be more. Much more.

A normal, healthy woman shouldn’t be afraid of the strength of a man’s feelings—or her own. Audra prayed she’d someday find the courage to be that normal and healthy.

"No, we’re not family. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.” Again she lifted the dish. "Friends who do each other favors every now and then.”

"And the favor you’re doing is bringing me food?” he asked.

"A home-cooked meal.” She beamed at him.

Carter removed his hat and ran his hand through hair darkened by that hard day of work she’d mentioned. He could use a trim, although a part of her liked the length of his hair. His chin and cheeks were covered in stubble and there were sun creases around his eyes. His broad chest and arm muscles strained against his shirt, while his form-fitting jeans showed the dust of long hours in the saddle... and detailed every muscle in his thighs, and from the few times she’d been able to get a look, his backside. Though covered with a thin layer of sweat, he exuded basic, hardworking, masculine appeal.

But he also looked tired.

When he re-settled his hat, widened his stance, and lowered both hands to his hips, Audra couldn’t stop her grin.

"What’s so funny?” he asked.

"Marissa must have learned to stand like that from watching you.”

His lips twitched. They shared, she knew, a mutual love for his niece. "Then she must get her single-minded stubbornness from you.”

"Nope, that’s her mom, through and through,” Audra said.

"Not from where I’m standing.” Carter nodded at the dish she still held. "What’s in this for you?”

If Audra had learned nothing else during that tormented time in her life, it was to watch what she said until she had gauged a man’s mood.

"Well, if you invited me to share dinner with you, we’d both be able to enjoy a home-cooked meal.”

"Why?”

"Gosh, Carter, way to make me feel welcomed.” She managed a laugh when he grumbled under his breath. "Of course, if I stay for dinner, that would mean you’d be obligated to carry on a conversation of more than one or two words at a time.”

"I can talk,” he argued, his tone defensive. It was enough to make her hope she might actually pull this off. "Besides, it’s a small enough price to pay for your cooking.” He looked down at himself, then back at her. "I’ll need some time to clean up.”

She felt an inner glow of triumph. "That’ll give me time to get everything set up.”

Once inside his kitchen, Audra heard the water flowing through the overhead pipes. While she set pretty blue and white plates on the table, she tried, unsuccessfully for the most part, to avoid picturing a naked and wet Carter in the shower.

She wanted to know what it was like to be involved with a man she trusted, to share without fear, to touch and be touched without cringing. She’d had that for such a short time, it was easy to forget what it had been like. She wasn’t quite ready for intimacy, but she wanted to believe that with Carter, the day was coming when she’d be willing to act on the feelings growing inside her.

For now, though, she made herself at home. It didn’t feel as strange as she might have expected, as she moved around his kitchen, searching through the cabinets for glasses and mugs. She set coffee to brew, then pulled a few more things out of the bags she’d brought along. She’d been taught from an early age that the keeping of the home was a woman’s responsibility. Yet, even when her mother had been alive, most of the household chores had been Audra’s. In the last few months, she’d realized some of those early expectations had made her vulnerable to the abuse she’d suffered.

Carter’s kitchen felt right. It was a good space, and for rea­sons other than size and layout.

Audra knew Carter and Logan’s mother had suffered be­fore she died, and she’d heard that their father had been a stern, often demanding man. She’d been told it had been their mother, more often than not, who’d kept the balance of peace in the house. For that reason, Audra believed the ghost of good memories lingered here, soft and warm.

She hoped her future would include spending more time here.

But first, she had to convince Carter the proposal she’d come up with would benefit them both.

SHIVERING BENEATH the spray of cold water, Carter pressed his hands against the tile.

What the hell had he done?

He should have told Audra to go home. Why had he let her goad him into inviting her for dinner? He shook his head. Be­cause the aroma coming from the dish she’d held had been impossible to turn down.

Besides, she’d looked so relaxed and had smiled so sweetly.

It was bad enough that nothing about this day—hell, this month—had gone right. Now he had to go downstairs and make polite conversation... as well as somehow keep his distance from the woman he wanted naked and moaning beneath him in his bed.

Audra Black had intrigued him right from the start, and not just for the usual reasons a woman caught a man’s eye. He liked her quiet manner, and was glad she didn’t talk his ear off the way some women did. Or, worse, get mad when he sat silent.

She was a little more than average height; skinny, although she’d filled out in all the right ways in the last year. Her eyes were the color of the ocean, or at least pictures he’d seen of the ocean, and she had blond hair with streaks of brown. There was a small, almost hidden scar along the hairline of her right temple.

He could still remember every curve of her body from that one dance they’d shared at Kendall and Logan’s wedding.

"You’re a damn fool,” he muttered as he switched off the water.

She was up to something. He’d bet the ranch on it.

Provided he even had the ranch much longer. Carter swore and rubbed the towel over his face. He could almost hear his father’s condemning voice echoing in his head. At least this time around, it wasn’t because he’d become tangled up with a woman. A woman he thought he’d loved, one who’d claimed she loved him back.

No, this time Carter had no one but himself to blame. He’d risked more than he should have by taking out the loan. Pride, he well knew, could be almost as dangerous to a man as his attraction to a woman. Now he was working against time, money, and an endless list of chores. At least tonight, cooking wasn’t on that list.

Ten minutes later, he came downstairs only to draw up short in the kitchen doorway. Audra stood at the sink, humming while she did something he couldn’t see. She looked at home, and content in a way he wouldn’t allow himself to trust.

"Smells good,” Carter said.

"Oh.” Audra jumped a little before she turned around. Her hands slid down the sides of her dress, as if wiping nerves off her palms. Yep, she was definitely up to something.

"I wasn’t sure how long you’d be, so I put the lasagna in the oven to stay warm. We can eat if you’re ready.”

"There’s no rush.” He looked around the room, noticing she’d set the table. "I don’t have any wine.”

"I have to drive home anyway.”

When she moved to the oven and bent over to peek inside, Carter nearly groaned. It had been a very long time since he’d been with a woman, especially a decent one like Audra. She wore a loose dress, but the material clung to the shape of her butt, a shape made for a man’s hands. He looked down. His hands would fit perfectly over her curves.

"What can I do to help?” he asked, desperate to keep his mind off his unruly libido.

"Help?”

She looked at him, her eyes darting around the room as if something was wrong. When he’d come downstairs, Carter had thought the quicker they got through the meal, the quicker he could send her on her way. But the look in her gaze had him taking a slow step around the table, toward her.

"I think I’ve got some iced tea in here,” he said, opening the refrigerator. He heard her let loose a shaky breath.

"That would be great, thanks.”

"What are you doing there?” he asked when she turned back to the sink.

"It won’t take but a minute longer.”

"Didn’t think it would. You finish up while I pour the tea.”

"I had a couple of apples at home that needed to be used, so I thought I’d microwave them in a cinnamon sauce.” She glanced over her shoulder with a grin. "Marissa told me her Uncle Carter always has ice cream at his house.”

He walked over to stand beside her as he pulled a couple of glasses from the cabinet. "I’m going to have to talk to Marissa about telling people my weaknesses.”

Audra looked up at him, and although her mouth still curved, it was not as amused now. But it was her eyes that told him where her thoughts had gone. Like the ocean, her gaze seemed turbulent, as if it were struggling for calm while overwhelmed with undercurrents of emotion.

"From where I’m standing,” she said, her voice a whisper, "I don’t see any weaknesses.”

"Audra, are you flirting with me?”

"Just stating the obvious.” She blinked and turned back to her task. "Besides, we both know the tough guy act won’t hold water against Marissa.”

"Look who’s talking.”

"True.” Audra sighed. "That little girl’s had my heart from the beginning.”

"How’s she feeling about being a big sister?”

"Excited. Although she’s made it quite clear she’s not sharing a bedroom.”

"So tell me.” He leaned over a little, ignoring the way she seemed to tense up. "Are Kendall and Logan having another girl or a boy this time?”

"It’s too early to test for the sex of the baby.” Her lips quirked. "Besides, what makes you think I would know?”

"You’re kidding, right? You and Kendall tell each other everything.”

"That is so sexist. Men gossip as much as women. In fact, sometimes, they do it even more, in my experience.”

"You can’t have it both ways, Audra. Either you think I don’t talk enough, or you think I’m an old busybody.”

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