Cowboy Come Home

Cowboy Come Home

Eve Gaddy

January 2013 $12.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-246-0

A bittersweet reunion. A second chance at happiness.



 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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Eve Gaddy delights her fans with a classic "secret baby” story . . .

A bittersweet reunion. A second chance at happiness.
The daughter who may never forgive them both.


Sixteen years ago, rodeo hungry Jake Rollins left Happy, Texas and love behind. What he didn’t know was that he’d left his unborn daughter behind as well. After a chance meeting with young Leigh, he can’t shake his suspicions and arrives in Happy, determined to find the truth and correct the worst mistake of his life.

Widow Anna Connor has no more reason to trust champion bronc rider Jake Rollins when he blows back into town than when he’d broken her heart sixteen years ago, leaving her devastated and pregnant. She’d picked up the pieces of her life and found a good man, a man she eventually loved, to help her raise her baby. She doesn’t owe Jake anything. She shouldn’t care at all . . . except the sexiest cowboy she’s ever known is unfinished business for her heart and the father of her child. Like it or not, the time has come to introduce Jake Rollins to the daughter he’s never known.
Can they navigate the rocky road of redemption and find a way into each other’s hearts? Can they forge a real family, or will they have to put their daughter’s feelings first if she rejects the father she never knew?


Reviews

"…fans of cowboy romances will appreciate how Gaddy brings to life enjoyable characters with a country flair." -- Julie Johnson, Book Tribe


Excerpt

 

Chapter One

RUMOR HIT town before he did.

The theories about why Jake Rollins had returned to Happy, Texas, ran every bit as wild as he had. Some claimed he’d come back to finally make peace with his father, Wes Rollins. They swore he was back to stay, and he planned to take over running the Rollins ranch. Others discounted that idea, since Jake had never been one for cattle ranching. No, if he was there to stay, they figured, it would be to raise horses. He’d always had a thing for horses.

But most folks believed he’d only come back for a visit—about time, too—and had no intention of sticking around. After all, what could a man like Jake find to keep him in Happy?

To tell the truth, nobody really knew, but every last one of them had a theory.

Except, that is, Anna Leigh Connor. Anna didn’t know and didn’t care what had brought him back. She just thanked God she’d had a warning before she walked smack into a past she’d never thought to see again.

Jake Rollins. The man who’d given her her greatest heartache. And her greatest joy.

Still, she admitted to curiosity. What would Jake look like after all this time? He couldn’t possibly be as sinfully good-looking as he’d been at age twenty. Surely that dark-blond hair had dulled to a lackluster brown, those knock-’em-dead-blue eyes had faded to a boring shade, without a wicked gleam in them.

And if there truly was a God, that sinewy plane of hard-muscled belly had been replaced by a paunch. His face would reveal every line of dissipation, his body every excess he’d committed in the sixteen years of wild living he’d no doubt indulged in since he left home. Anna devoutly hoped he felt—and showed—every bit of it.

Fortunately, she didn’t see any unfamiliar vehicles parked outside the Hitching Post, Happy’s one convenience store and home to much of the ever present gossip. Having forgotten her coat, as usual, she dashed inside with gritted teeth. Right now the grouping of dingy white Formica-topped tables and orange plastic chairs near the entrance stood empty, waiting for another group of folks to gather to drink coffee, talk, and pass the time.

A reprieve, Anna thought as she headed for the refrigerated units at the back of the small wooden building, but she had a feeling the calm wouldn’t last long. She would run into Jake sooner or later. Though never would suit her just fine.

Becky Swenson’s voice, bursting with news, drowned out the tinny sound of country music issuing from the battered boom box behind the counter. The decor suited the place, with various cattle brands from the area’s ranches adorning the beige walls, along with a few Western landscape pictures.

As Becky talked, Anna grabbed a carton of skim milk, a loaf of bread, a couple rolls of toilet paper, and stuffed a box of chocolate sandwich cookies—Leigh’s favorite—under her arm before carrying them to the counter.

"Wes came in here day before yesterday,” Becky said, patting a hand over her mousy brown curls, "and I swear, I’d as soon try to get words from a dying frog as him. But—” she paused significantly before continuing "—he did admit that Jake is back in town.”

"He did?” Anna asked, curious in spite of herself. Somehow the picture of crusty Wes Rollins gossiping with Becky Swenson wouldn’t quite come clear. He usually didn’t even drink coffee with the rest of the men, though he did show up from time to time.

"Well, he grunted when I asked him, and he bought an extra gallon of milk. Jake used to drink a lot of milk, didn’t he?”

Anna doubted milk was his favorite drink now, but she let the question ride. She had no desire to get into a speculative discussion about Jake Rollins’s interests. Especially since she’d once been one of them. She’d bet Becky, who’d gone to school with them both, and had known her since they were all in diapers, remembered that nearly as well as Anna did.

"And speaking of good-looking devils,” Becky continued, her voice turning sticky-bun sweet. "Look who just walked in. Why if it isn’t Jake Rollins, as I live and breathe.”

Half suspecting Becky of pulling her leg, Anna turned around. Shock hit her in the chest like the kick of a horse, as chill and bitter as the winter wind that whistled through the open doorway. She couldn’t breathe. Her head whirled, her stomach plunged. For an endless moment she could do no more than stare at the man filling the doorway.

Life, she thought, sucking in air again, was terrifically unfair. He didn’t look dissipated at all. Older, mature, not a boy any longer, but a man. And oh, Lord, what a man. Same dark-blond hair, same sky-blue eyes, same lady-killer dimple winking in one lean cheek. Six feet plus of pure, hard male. A white T-shirt, visible beneath his black leather jacket, stretched across his muscled chest and flat abdomen. So much for the paunch he deserved, she thought. Faded denim hugged his long legs just tightly enough to inspire wicked fantasies. Some picture. Enough to make a strong woman’s knees buckle and give a weak one a heart attack.

He nodded at Becky, but his eyes were for her. "Anna Leigh,” he said, in that midnight-sinful voice she remembered all too well.

Had nothing changed about the blasted man? "Anna Connor,” she corrected, and met his devilish gaze with a bland look of her own.

He grinned at her, acknowledging the pointed remark, but he didn’t look away. No, he looked her over like he had all day and then some, and like he for darn sure approved of the view.

A tingle of sensual awareness started in her belly and spread. She cursed herself and swore she wouldn’t let him affect her, wouldn’t let him get to her. But it was too late, he already had. Along with the undeniable attraction, and just as unwelcome, a finger of fear shivered through her.

She turned back to Becky and said sharply, "Would you mind ringing this stuff up, Becky, or are you going to stand there gawking for the next half hour?” She couldn’t really blame her friend. If he hadn’t been the last man on earth she wanted to see, she’d have been gawking, too.

Obviously shocked by her curtness, Becky stared at her with rounded eyes. "Well, sure, Anna. I didn’t know you were in such a hurry.” She sniffed, and Anna knew Becky would give her the cold shoulder for at least a week. She’d endure an ice age, though, if she could just get out of there and away from Jake.

"Where do you keep the picture?” he asked her, lounging against the counter while Becky rang each item up as slowly as an armadillo crossed the road.

Sixteen years since Anna had seen him, and he still surprised her. That wasn’t the sort of question she’d have expected him to ask her. "What picture?”

"The one that ages while you never do.”

She cast him a withering glare—one that had made other men pale. "Still have that charm, I see. Don’t bother wasting it on me, cowboy.”

He smiled, a slow, wicked smile guaranteed to make a woman melt. Well, dammit, not her. She had dry ice in her veins when it came to him.

"Charm is never wasted on a beautiful woman. How have you been, Anna?”

Becky’s eyelids had stretched so wide by now that it was a wonder her eyeballs didn’t fall out of her head. She ignored both Becky and Jake, hoping if she didn’t respond he’d go away.

He didn’t.

"I’d have known you anywhere. It’s downright spooky how much you still look like the eighteen-year-old girl—”

"Don’t bother, Jake,” she interrupted. "As you ought to know, I’m not eighteen anymore. I grew up. Did you?”

"Tongue’s sharper,” he noted appreciatively.

"Eyes are open.” Thank God, Becky had finished totaling up her purchases. She slapped her money down and held out her hand, palm up, aware of Jake’s knowing smile and Becky’s goggling eyes. Thankfully closing her fingers around the change, she said, "This has been fascinating, Jake, don’t think it hasn’t. But I have business to attend to.”

He stepped to the door with her. "I’ll walk out with you.”

"No, you won’t.”

Disregarding her order, he held the door for her and walked with her to her ancient pickup. Once a bright, cheery red, the relentless Texas sun had baked it to a muddy rust, and Anna gave thanks for each day that passed without her having to replace another part.

Her palm itched to smack the dimple right off his cheek. She quelled the urge, rather than give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d provoked her. Flipping a strand of long blond hair back from her face, she said, "Why don’t you do what you do best and get lost?”

"Guess this means you haven’t forgiven me.”

"Sharp as a barb on a wire. What was your first clue?”

He laughed. "Oh, I don’t know. Might have been some of those killer glares you’ve been aiming my way.”

She didn’t answer but stalked toward her truck.

Laying a hand on her arm, Jake stopped her. "Come on, Anna, sixteen years is a long time to nurse a grudge.”

She froze, willing herself to feel nothing, willing herself to ignore the jolting current that sizzled up her arm and through her bloodstream from that simple contact. Dammit, it wasn’t fair that he could still affect her with a casual touch.

"I’d have to care to hold a grudge,” she said, slicing him with a sharp glance. "And I don’t. Now get your hand off my arm.”

Instead, he slid his fingers down to feel the wildly galloping pulse at her wrist.

"You want to keep those fingers intact, you’d best move them,” she said, damning him for evoking a reaction from her. And not just any reaction. Dislike, disgust, a response like that would have been fine. But no, even after what he’d done, he could still make her pulse race with excitement and pleasure, like a filly’s at the starting gate.

He dropped her wrist and gave her a rueful smile. "Damn, Anna, you’re even more beautiful now than you were as a girl.”

Thinking she ought to yank that silvery tongue right out of his lying, sexy mouth, she jerked open the truck door, slid in, and slammed it closed. He stood there smiling at her through the window. Anna wished violently that the Palo Duro Canyon would open up a new fissure right where Jake Rollins stood and gulp him whole. With her luck, good old Mama Earth would belch him right back out, none the worse for wear.

She rolled down the window for a final pithy comment. "Like I said, Jake, save it for someone who cares.”

Naturally, the window jammed open. Jake didn’t say a word as he opened the door, turned the handle, and rolled it back up. He didn’t need to. His smart-ass grin said it all.

She knew she was overreacting, knew that seeing him again shouldn’t have thrown her so much. But she couldn’t be reasonable about the fear that hammered in her pulses, the pain that squeezed her heart when she thought of what his coming back could mean. Jake didn’t know it, but he could tear her world apart now as easily, and even more completely, than he had sixteen years ago.

The day he’d called her from the National Rodeo finals in Las Vegas and told her he’d married someone else.

JAKE WATCHED Anna leave, not bothering to go back into the store. He’d only gone inside in the first place because he’d seen Anna dash inside and decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. For a man with a plan, he thought, climbing into his own truck, he wasn’t doing too great. He headed to his father’s ranch, surprised to find how easily the habit of driving home came back to him.

Seeing him again had rattled Anna, though she’d done her best not to show it. Those jade-green eyes of hers had sizzled with anger, but something else had blazed in them as well. He’d bet one of his championship belt buckles that she felt the chemistry that still flared between them. Just as he did.

He’d expected her reaction, her anger. No surprises there. Wincing, he recalled how he’d broken the news of his marriage to her. Not a very smooth move, he had to admit, even if he had been hardly more than a kid.

But what really jerked his chain was his reaction to her. He’d had one purpose in mind for Anna Leigh, and one purpose only. A swift and instant rekindling of the old fire between them hadn’t been in the plans.

He should have been prepared. After all, he’d seen her daughter, her spitting image, only a few weeks ago. But who would have imagined that Anna would still look so young, or be every bit as blond, slim, and pretty as he remembered her? No, that wasn’t quite it, he thought. The girl had been pretty. The woman was drop-dead gorgeous.

Even so, sixteen years was a long time. He shouldn’t have had such a strong reaction to her, no matter how beautiful he still found her.

But the fact remained, seeing Anna Leigh Connor in the flesh had blown him away.

That thought still plagued him, when fifteen minutes later he pulled up to the Rollins ranch. He’d only been in town a couple of days, and the reunion with his father had been both easier and harder than he’d expected. Wes had taken Jake’s call that he wanted to come see him and stay a while, in stride, even though it would be the first time they’d seen each other since Jake had left home so long ago.

That had been his father’s choice, as much as Jake’s. The old man had never made the attempt to see Jake ride—no big shock, given his father’s disapproval of his choice of profession. And he’d never come right out and asked Wes, either. It was simpler to think he wouldn’t come than face the rejection if Jake asked, and his father turned him down.

So neither had asked and neither had given. Until Jake had showed up early one morning after driving all night and caught Wes coming out of the barn. Unsure of his welcome, Jake had gotten out of his truck and waited for his father to reach him.

Wes was older, was Jake’s first thought. Still a big, powerful man, he’d aged well. But sixteen years had taken their toll, on both of them.

For a long moment, they’d simply stared at each other, then Wes had stretched out his hand, and Jake met it with his own. Gripping it tightly, with an emotion he hadn’t expected to feel, Jake could have sworn he saw moisture in the old man’s eyes.

But Wes Rollins didn’t cry. Not even on the day they’d buried his wife. Jake couldn’t imagine him breaking down now, and sure as hell not over the son he’d never gotten along with paying him a visit.

Jake still hadn’t told him of his plans to settle near Happy, to buy a place of his own where he could breed and raise cutting horses. They had both carefully avoided the topic of how long Jake planned to stick around. Would his father be glad when he found out? Or would he even care?

JAKE DREW UP a chair across from his father at the kitchen table. The same scarred wooden table he remembered eating at all through his childhood. For a minute it infuriated him that Wes so clearly had no use for the money Jake had sent over the years. At least his father could have bought himself a damned new table.

Wes, never one for unnecessary talk, merely grunted in answer to most of Jake’s questions. Though it had been years since he had talked to his father much, he still recognized the tone of Wes’s answers. A deep sound meant no, yes came out slightly higher, and a snort meant he had no use for the question.

Jake decided beating around the bush would get him nowhere, so he opted for the direct route. "When did Carl Connor die?”

Wes looked up from his sandwich and pinned his son with a speculative stare. "Carl?”

"Yeah. Carl Connor. Anna Leigh Connor’s late husband.” And once upon a time, Jake’s best friend, though he didn’t repeat that thought aloud.

"’Bout four, five years ago.” Of course, being Wes, he didn’t elaborate.

Jake remembered his father telling him about it in one of their rare phone conversations, months after the fact. Wes had been no more forthcoming then than he was now. "Did he get sick? What happened?”

"Like that, is it?” Wes said and nodded.

If Jake hadn’t known his father to be incapable of it, he’d have sworn Wes smiled. His brown hair might be liberally sprinkled with gray, but age, apparently, hadn’t dulled his wits a bit.

"Won’t do you any good.” Wes took a bite of his sandwich and chewed it slowly before adding, "She won’t have anything to do with you.”

Despite his best efforts, Jake flushed. Damn, the old man always had known how to pick his most vulnerable spot. "I didn’t ask your opinion, I asked how Carl died.”

His father nodded again. "I know what you asked. Got a good idea why you asked it, too.” After a pause, he said, "Drunk driver hit him. Rolled his pickup. He went into a coma.” His gaze met Jake’s, his eyes, like his son’s, a sharp, piercing blue. "Died about three days later.”

Three days. His appetite deserting him, Jake pushed his plate away. Familiar feelings of guilt and regret hit him. He’d walked away from Carl, who’d been his best friend, as completely and finally as he had Anna and his father. Another more cynical side figured that Carl wouldn’t have wanted him around anyway—not once he’d married Anna.

But to die like that... so damned young. "Must have been hard for Anna.”

"Yep. He was a good man. Did his duty, lived up to his responsibilities.”

Unlike you. The implied words hung between them. Frustrated, Jake shoved a hand through his hair and ground his teeth together to keep from speaking.

A knock saved him from uttering the words that had been threatening to spill. Wes pushed his chair back and rose stiffly, as if it pained him to move. It probably did, Jake thought. The old man was too stubborn to admit he had arthritis. Tall, powerfully built, and tough as boot leather, he didn’t take kindly to aging.

Wes swung open the door and stood stock-still. "Mary?” He sounded bewildered. "What are you doing here?”

"I came to welcome Jake home, of course. Don’t just stand there, Wes. Let me in.”

Standing, Jake smiled at her tone. He’d recognize Mary Gallick’s voice anywhere, even though he hadn’t heard it in years. It seemed his high school English teacher still had the habit of command. Even funnier, Wes obeyed her instantly, scrambling to get out of her way. Mary, a small sparrow of a woman, made Wes look even larger—and extremely ill at ease. Jake wondered why.

"The prodigal returns, I see,” she said, nailing him with a critical eye. "It’s about time.”

He couldn’t help grinning. She’d always been his favorite teacher. Only ten years or so older than he, her youth had made her more accessible than most of his teachers. "Yes, ma’am. How have you been, Mrs. Gallick?”

"I’d be better if you called me Mary. I don’t need to feel any older than I already do, and being called Mrs. Gallick by somebody your age makes me feel positively ancient.” She turned to Wes. "Did you ask him?”

Shooting Jake a quick glance, his father shook his head. He mumbled something that sounded like "Back to work,” jammed his hat on his head, and shot out the door seconds later. Jake didn’t recall ever seeing his father move that fast.

Mary watched his retreat, a smile lifting one side of her mouth. "I didn’t think so,” she murmured before taking a seat at the table. She patted her short, dark hair into place and eyed him sharply. "Are you just here for a visit, or are you planning on sticking around?”

At the blunt question, Jake’s eyebrow lifted. "As a matter of fact, I’m thinking about staying.”

"Good.” She smiled. "Your father will be happy about that.”

Would he? Jake wasn’t so sure, especially since he had no intention of running cattle. He started clearing the table. "What is it you wanted to ask me?”

"Well, it has to do with the library.”

The dishes clattered into the sink. Jake turned around and looked at her. "What library? Happy doesn’t have a library.”

"Exactly.” She beamed at him, clearly pleased he’d caught on so quickly. "But it’s going to.”

Light dawned. "You want me to donate money to build a library?”

She looked startled. "I didn’t realize you—” She stopped, shaking her head. "I’m sorry, it’s none of my business.”

"Does everyone think I came home because I’m broke?”

"Well...” Her lips quirked. "Nobody knows. It’s all speculation. You know how Happy is. And you know how little your father talks.”

Jake smiled cynically. "You can tell the curious that I’m not broke. And while I can’t fund the entire building, I might be persuaded to donate a respectable amount.”

"That would be wonderful, Jake. But what we really need—” she hesitated then finished "—is you.”

Needed him? How long had it been since somebody needed him? He couldn’t remember. Equal parts pleased and wary, he waited for her to go on.

"We have a grant, but it won’t cover all the expenses. So we want to host a charity rodeo with the proceeds going to the library fund. We need someone who knows what he’s doing to run it.” Enthusiasm sparkled in her brown eyes. "So naturally, when Wes said you were coming home, I thought of you.”

He frowned, leaned back against the counter, and folded his arms across his chest. "But Mrs. Ga—Mary, I’ve never put on a rodeo before.” And it sounded like a lot of work he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to do. He had his plate full enough with his own plans. "I’m a bronc rider. I’ve never been involved in the production end of things.”

"Oh, come now, Jake. You’ve got connections. You know people on the circuit. You could pull in some big names if you wanted to. And with you as the organizer, we’d get instant recognition.”

"I think you’re making too much of my fame. I’m old news.”

She stood, jamming a hand on a slim hip, reminding him of her determination when she wanted something. "Horsefeathers. You could do it if you wanted. Admit it.”

He supposed he could. A library was a good thing, a good cause. And he liked thinking that he could be instrumental in bringing Happy something lasting and worthwhile. Besides, he was used to lending his name, not to mention his money, to various charities. This involved more than that, though. It meant spending a lot of time and effort to make sure it was done right.

But he’d need help. Someone else who knew what they were doing would be nice. Someone, he realized, beginning to smile, who already ran a riding school. Someone who already hosted play days and who knew all about barrel racing.

"I can’t do it alone.”

"Everyone would pitch in. It would be a community project.”

"More than that. I’d need a co-chair,” Jake said. "And I know just the person.”

"She won’t do it,” Mary said flatly. "Forget it, Jake.”

"How do you know who I’m thinking about?”

"Honey—” she smiled indulgently "—I’m not that much older than you. And I’m not senile yet.” She patted his arm. "I remember as well as everyone else that you and Anna Leigh Connor used to be sweethearts. And she’s even prettier now than she was all those years ago.”

She had that right. "You get Anna to co-chair this rodeo with me, and I’ll do it.”

"And how am I supposed to do that? You’re not exactly one of her favorite people. Good Lord, Jake, you practically left her at the altar.”

"Yeah, and she married Carl Connor soon enough after that, didn’t she? Doesn’t look like she wasted much time mourning my loss.” It still stung that she’d managed to get over him so quickly. And with Carl, his supposed best friend. Jake had always suspected Carl had a thing for Anna. He’d proved it, too, when he moved in on her as quick as a rattler with dinner in its sights.

"Tell her it’s her civic duty,” he suggested.

"Anna’s had it rough, Jake. She doesn’t need you making it rougher.”

He shrugged. "No Anna, no dice.”

"You’re up to something. I can see it in your eyes.”

Jake gave her an innocent smile. "Let me know what happens.” He had faith in Mary Gallick. She wanted the library, which meant she wanted the rodeo to take place. Somehow, she’d get Anna to agree.

He’d have a chance to get to know Anna again.

Because one way or another, Jake intended to find out if Anna’s pretty little girl was Carl’s daughter.

Or his.


 

 

Chapter Two

INSIDE THE BARN, Anna turned her head at the slam of a car door. Moments later, Leigh entered at full tilt, with her mouth running to match.

"Mom! Mom, are you in here?”

"In Promise’s stall,” she called, then bent to sift through another forkful of shavings. She stifled a sneeze at the chaff and dust of the hay. "How did cheerleader practice go? And where’s your jacket?” she asked in exasperation as Leigh clumped into the stall beside her, blowing on her hands. "It’s thirty-five degrees outside.”

"Left it at school. Guess what? I got the pictures back!”

"What pictures?” Grateful for the respite, Anna leaned on the handle of the manure fork as the acrid odor of soiled shavings wafted upward. Mucking out the stalls was her least favorite chore. Leigh would help her, though, as soon as she changed into something warm.

"The ones from that rodeo in Houston a few weeks ago. You know, the one me and Blaire went to with Mrs. Nelson when you couldn’t go.”

"Blaire and I,” Anna corrected automatically. She’d hated to miss seeing Leigh race, but with a clinic scheduled for that weekend, Anna had had no choice. Fortunately, Suzie Nelson didn’t mind taking Leigh along with her daughter. "Are they any good?” Anna asked skeptically. Suzie’s strong points didn’t include photography.

"Super,” Leigh said, holding them out to her. "See for yourself.” She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. "Brr, I’m going to find a coat.”

"I could use some help here. Luis and José are out checking fences,” she added, referring to her ranch hands.

"Sure, Mom.” Her grin flashed, quick and blinding. "Back in a sec.”

Stepping outside the stall, Anna thumbed through the stack of snapshots, pausing to study the good ones. Candid shots of the two girls, Leigh as fair as Blaire was dark. A couple of Leigh on Promise, her barrel racing horse, obviously taken before the competition. Another one, surprisingly good, of Leigh and Promise on the straightaway home. Gazing at it for a long moment, Anna sighed, pride for her daughter’s success warring, as always, with uneasiness about Leigh’s future.

If only Leigh saw barrel racing as a hobby, rather than a career. Anna wanted her daughter to finish school, go to college, have a more stable life than a career in barrel racing could ever give her. But Leigh was young. Stubborn. And she wanted to rodeo—professionally. Still, Anna didn’t intend to panic yet. Teenagers were notoriously fickle. Something else might strike Leigh’s interest.

Smiling at the sight of Leigh receiving her prize for second place, she realized Leigh’s features were blurred in that picture. But as Anna took a closer look, the face of the man awarding the prize became heart-stoppingly clear.

Jake Rollins.

She closed her eyes, shook the picture and opened them to stare at it again, praying it had been an hallucination.

It was real, all right.

He wore that same smile, that dazzling, knee-weakening smile that she remembered seeing on his face the first time he won the saddle bronc event in a local rodeo. And that night after the rodeo had been the first time Jake danced with her, when he finally realized she wasn’t just a pesky kid who lived on the neighboring ranch.

"Mom, what’s wrong? You look like you’re about to throw up.”

Anna turned glazed eyes to her daughter, holding the photo out to her. "This is... this man is—”

"Yeah, isn’t it cool?” Her fingertip touched his face. "That’s Jake Rollins. He’s a five-time saddle bronc World Champion. Didn’t I tell you he presented all the prizes?”

"No,” she choked out. "No, you didn’t mention it.”

"Sure I did, Mom,” she said impatiently. "You just weren’t paying attention. Right after I came home, I told you all about it. You were doing the books.”

That explained it. If Anna’s attention had been on her finances, then she probably hadn’t been listening that closely. Now that she thought about it, she did remember Leigh mentioning "a cool guy” had given out the prizes. But she hadn’t mentioned him by name. Anna would have reacted if she had.

"He said he used to know you,” Leigh continued.

"He—did?” Apprehension kicked up her pulse. Oh, God, what else had he said? Surely he hadn’t mentioned their past relationship, or Leigh would have brought it up already.

"Mmm-hmm,” Leigh mumbled, leafing through the remaining photos and selecting one. "Here’s another picture of him. Blaire made her mom take it.” Leigh’s nose wrinkled as she laughed. "Blaire thinks he’s really hot.”

Hot, Anna thought, dazed. Leigh’s best friend thought Jake was hot. And dammit, she realized, gazing at the photo as an almost forgotten ache invaded her heart, Blaire was absolutely right.

"He’s nice, too,” her daughter continued. "He talked to me for a while later on, after the rodeo. Isn’t he Mr. Rollins’s son? That’s what Blaire’s mom said. Why hasn’t he been around before now?”

Leigh chattered as she took over mucking out her mare’s stall. Anna answered her questions vaguely, her mind racing with questions of her own. Jake had seen Leigh. Met her. Found out she was Anna’s daughter. Taken the time to talk to her. And he’d obviously had a strong impact on an impressionable young girl. Small wonder. Leigh, crazy to rodeo, to win a circuit championship, would find a five-time national rodeo champion fascinating. Oh, Lord, what did it all mean?

Much to Anna’s relief, Leigh finally changed the subject. But worries continued to churn in Anna’s mind.

An hour later, with the chores finished, she still hadn’t sorted things out. Counting back the weeks, she realized that rumors of Jake’s return had started circulating shortly after that ill-fated rodeo. Then he’d put fact to the rumors and come back to Happy. Coincidence? she asked herself as she entered the small, whitewashed wood frame house that had once been Carl’s parents’ home. Not hardly.

No one had seen as much as Jake’s shadow in Happy in sixteen years. Not until three weeks after he’d first set eyes on Leigh. What was he up to?

Anna had an uneasy feeling she knew.

Unlike everyone else in town, Suzie wouldn’t have thought to go out of her way to mention Jake to Anna. Since Suzie hadn’t grown up in Happy, she hadn’t known him, or Anna’s history with him. Not that it would have made a difference if Anna had known about the meeting, except she might not feel as blindsided as she did now.

Maybe she was reading too much into this, given her guilty knowledge. Jake’s return didn’t have to hold a sinister significance. With any luck it didn’t.

The home phone rang, interrupting her worries, as she and Leigh cleared the supper dishes from the table. Leigh answered it, chatting for a few minutes while Anna finished up.

"It’s Grandma, Mom,” Leigh said, handing her the phone.

"Homework,” Anna reminded her as she took it, and Leigh left. "Hi, Mom. How are things? Is Edward any better?” Her mother had remarried and moved to California several years ago, after Anna’s father’s death. Though she and Anna kept in touch regularly, they only saw each other a couple of times a year.

"The new medicine is helping,” her mother said. "He’s doing a lot better. When are you and Leigh going to get out to see us?”

"Oh, Mom, this isn’t a good time. I’m not sure.”

"Well, whenever you can manage it, let us know. Anything new going on there?”

"As a matter of fact, yes.” Though they’d never questioned her decision, Anna had always wondered just what her parents had suspected about her hasty marriage and pregnancy. "Jake Rollins is back in town.”

There was a long silence before her mother spoke. "Jake Rollins? Good Lord.”

"It surprised a lot of people.”

Another pause. "Any particular reason he came home? It’s been years, hasn’t it?”

"Sixteen. And I have a feeling I know what’s brought him back.”

"Leigh,” her mother said. "Does Jake know he’s her father?”

Anna let out her breath in relief. "No, I never told him. How long have you known?”

"Honey, your father and I weren’t stupid. We figured it out pretty quickly.”

"You’ve never said a word.”

"What was the point? You’d made your decision, and we had to trust that it was the right one.”

"It was. It’s not marrying Carl that I’m questioning. But not telling Jake...” At the time, she’d been so certain she was right to keep it from him. "He met her at a rodeo three weeks ago, and suddenly he comes home. I can’t help but think he suspects. Mom, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

"Do you want me to fly out there? I can get a flight tomorrow if you need me.”

"No, it’s sweet of you to offer, but Edward needs you there. We’ll be all right. It’s probably nothing.” Her doorbell rang just then. "Let me call you back, okay? Someone’s at the door.”

"You know that you can call me whenever you want to talk.”

"Thanks, Mom. I will.” She hung up the phone feeling oddly cheered. At least there was one person she could speak to frankly. Even if her mother couldn’t do anything to help her, she could listen.

Mary Gallick, Leigh’s English teacher, stood on her doorstep. "Is this a bad time?” she asked. "Do you have a minute?”

"Sure.” Anna suppressed a groan. She liked Mary, and had since she’d been her student years before. But nearly every time Mary came over, Anna ended up involved in yet another school project. And at the moment, she didn’t have the time, much less the inclination. "What can I do for you, Mary?” she asked, leading her into the living room.

"I have a proposition for you,” she said, taking a seat on the well-used blue twill sofa.

"About school?”

Mary shook her head, smiling mischievously. "Not exactly. Come sit down, Anna, and let me explain.”

Anna sighed, eyeing Mary warily, but she took a seat and politely waited for her to begin.

"You know we’ve been trying to raise funds for the new library.”

Anna nodded. Having been to quite a few town meetings, naturally she knew about the plans. "I’m sorry I missed the last few meetings. I never heard if the grant came through.” And she’d been too busy to ask anyone, she thought guiltily.

"Yes, it did. Except that the funds we’ve been promised won’t cover everything, and we need to match them. So we decided to... that is... we think...” Uncharacteristically, she fumbled for words. "The, uh, the city council decided to host a charity rodeo to raise the rest of the money.”

Puzzled, Anna looked at her. What was she so nervous about? "That sounds like a fine idea, Mary. What is it you want me to do?” she asked, thinking that she could surely swing taking charge of an event or two.

"Would you consider... could you...”

Anna continued to look at her, wondering when she’d get to the point. And what was taking her so long to get there.

"We need someone to chair it,” Mary said in a rush.

This time Anna did groan. Her riding school demanded her full attention, even now in the winter, the off season. If Anna was going to succeed, and as the sole support of herself and her daughter, she fully intended to, then she had to work, and work hard, year-round. Just keeping her head above water wasn’t enough. She wanted more, a lot more.

"I know it’s a lot to ask,” Mary continued, a pleading note in her voice, "but we really need your help.”

Just say no, Anna told herself. Yeah, right. When Mary Gallick asked, no one said no. Her heart sank at the thought of the extra work. Besides, she’d never put on a rodeo. Just play days and clinics, not the same thing at all. A rodeo was a much bigger proposition. "Mary, I want to help, but I just don’t see how—”

Mary interrupted. "You wouldn’t have to do it all. We’ve found someone to co-chair it with you. An expert, as a matter of fact.”

An expert. Foreboding pricked Anna’s nerves like tiny needles. The apprehensive expression on Mary’s face all but confirmed Anna’s hunch. Nevertheless, she asked, "And who is this expert?”

"Jake Rollins.”

Anna sprang to her feet. "Are you out of your mind? I wouldn’t co-chair a dog fight with that man.”

Mary straightened and glared up at her. "Now, Anna, I know you have a history with him, but think of the town. We could generate a lot of publicity if a five-time World Champion helped chair the event. You have to admit, he’s perfect for the job.”

"Oh, I’m sure he would be. If you can convince him to stick around long enough to do it.”

"He says he’s back to stay. I believe him, Anna.”

Great. Just great. She paced a few steps, whirled to face Mary again. "Let him do it all, then. Or if he needs help, someone else can provide it. It’s not going to be me.”

"That’s just it. He won’t do it without you. His exact words were, ‘No Anna, no dice.”’

That sounded just like the jerk. Anna crossed her arms over her chest. "Tough.”

"Think of the school.”

"No.”

"Think of the town.”

"No.”

"Think of your daughter’s education.”

Anna winced. That last one hurt. "Mary, I can’t. Honestly, I can’t. I don’t have the time. I can’t afford to.”

"If you’ll pardon me for saying so, Anna,” she said acerbically, "you can’t afford not to. Think of what this event could mean, economically, to you—to the whole town. And if you co-chair it, why, with that sort of publicity, you’ll gain no telling how many new students, new boarders. This could put your school on the map, draw in new people from miles around.”

The worst of it, Anna thought, was that Mary was right. The rodeo would be a godsend of an economic boost to the whole area. Including, and especially, Anna’s riding school.

But she couldn’t. Plan a rodeo with Jake? Spend time with him? See him, talk to him, work with him?

No way in hell.

THE NEXT MORNING Anna dropped Leigh off at school and then drove immediately to the Rollins’s place. She must have lost her mind. How she had ever let Mary talk her into coordinating a rodeo with Jake Rollins, she didn’t know.

Yes, she did. Leigh’s intervention had swung her. She’d heard them talking and decided that having Happy host a rodeo would be awesome. The most awesome thing that had ever happened, according to Leigh. How could Anna resist those glowing eyes, the sparkling enthusiasm that filled her with motherly pride? She couldn’t, of course.

But the bottom line was that she’d be a fool not to take every chance possible to increase her school’s success.

So, rather than continue to be hammered at by both her daughter and her friend, she’d said yes. But by damn, if she had to work with Jake Rollins, she meant to lay down some rules. Rules to keep her—and her daughter—safe.

As she drove along the gravel drive to the Rollins’ one-story beige-brick ranch house, she saw Jake walking a good-looking blood bay toward the stables, cooling him down after a ride, she assumed. No horse of Wes’s, she thought, familiar with the older man’s stock. Switching off the car, she sat watching Jake a moment. He moved the way she remembered, with a long-limbed, carelessly graceful stride.

He wore faded jeans, scuffed boots, a battered black Stetson, and a faded, red flannel shirt. Nothing special, nothing different from what most men she knew wore every day. So why did it look so good on Jake?

Disgusted, she wondered again why Jake couldn’t have lost those damnable good looks. But she should be well past the age that she reacted so strongly to someone’s physical appearance. Why wasn’t she? Why did this one man still have the ability to send her into sensory overload simply by touching her?

Shock. That must have been it, she decided. The surprise of seeing him had made her lose control. It wouldn’t happen again.

That settled, she slid out of the truck, shutting the door with a determined bang. A stray piece of metal fell off with a clatter, strengthening her resolve. She thought she saw Jake grin as she walked toward him, but at the distance couldn’t be sure. It didn’t improve her mood.

"Hello, Anna.” Smiling at her as she approached, he tipped his hat back, revealing a shock of mussed dark-blond hair. His warm breath came out in puffs of cloud in the frosty morning air. The dirt beneath their feet sparkled with the glimmers of moisture crusting the ground. Behind him, the green of winter wheat waving in the field presented a striking backdrop for man and horse.

Infuriated by the ever present shiver of fear at the thought of what his return to Happy might mean, she parked her hands on her hips and glared at him. "I’m sure you know why I’m here.”

"You mean this isn’t a friendly social call?” He managed to look hurt and cocky at the same time.

"Not by a long shot, buster. What do you think you’re going to accomplish by forcing me to work with you on the rodeo?”

"C’mon, Slick,” he said to the horse. He shot her a speculative glance and started leading the horse toward the barn. "World peace?” When she snorted, he smiled again and asked, "Forcing’s a bit strong, don’t you think? But I expect to accomplish a hell of a rodeo.”

"You don’t need me to do that.”

Once inside the spacious barn, Jake tied the bay’s reins to the freshly painted white wooden door of a stall. She caught the whiff of leather and healthy sweat as he lifted the saddle and pad from the horse’s back. Then he tossed her a brush, taking it for granted that she’d groom one side of the horse while he did the other. A chore they’d done a thousand times when they were kids, she remembered. It didn’t amuse her how easily they fell into the rhythm again.

"If you weren’t so busy being prickly and defensive,” he said after a few moments, "you’d see that your involvement would be a good thing.”

"All I see is you manipulating things—” she ran the brush down a long flank "—especially me, to suit your purposes. And what I want to know is what those purposes are.”

"Anna, having a rodeo, one with all the usual events, will help everyone.” He spoke patiently, as if explaining something to a child, which yanked her chain even more. "The library fund, the town, even your riding school stand to gain. And your daughter has a good chance of placing in the barrel racing event.”

It took all Anna’s willpower not to blurt out, "Stay away from my daughter!” The last thing she wanted to do was draw his attention to Leigh. "You don’t need my help.”

"Sure I do. I need someone who knows which end is up when it comes to organizing things.” He stopped grooming the horse to look at her over its back. "You already host clinics and play days. Setting up a rodeo won’t be much of a stretch for you. Besides, I’ll be helping, too. You won’t have the whole thing on your shoulders, and neither will I.”

"You’re missing the point.”

He came around his horse’s head, standing so close she smelled the clean, fresh scent of the outdoors on him. "Which is?”

"I don’t want to work with you,” she said, gritting the words out through her teeth. "I don’t want to be around you. I don’t even particularly want to see you.”

He leaned over, his arm reaching around behind her. For a minute she didn’t know what he intended and felt a brief flare of fear. No, not fear, she realized, but... excitement. What the heck was wrong with her? She was long over this man.

Jake straightened up, and she saw the horse blanket in his hands. He bunched up the material, holding it so the bay could stick his head through the opening, then smoothed it over the animal’s back and hindquarters.

"Get that strap for me, will you?” he asked, motioning at the leg strap on her side.

Anna complied automatically. A moment later he stood beside her again, looking down at her with amusement dancing in his eyes. "What are you afraid of, Anna?”

"I’m not afraid of anything.” She lifted her chin, daring him to prove her wrong, but the skeptical look he gave her said he wasn’t buying it for a minute.

Irritating, aggravating

"If you’re so dead set on not having anything to do with me, why did you agree to work on the rodeo? Because you obviously did agree to it.”

No way would she tell him she needed the business it could generate. She had her pride, after all. Besides, she wasn’t destitute, just anxious to improve her school’s success. "Mary said you wouldn’t do it if I didn’t agree to co-chair it. And she was practically drooling at the idea of having you involved. What was I supposed to do? If I’d refused, I’d have come off looking like the Grinch.” Not to mention, she wasn’t about to let him know how much he affected her.

Jake grinned and lifted an eyebrow. "No way you could ever look like the Grinch. He’s nowhere near as beautiful as you are.”

To her shame, and fury, she felt a flash of pleasure at his words. "Stop it! Stop flirting with me, or whatever it is you think you’re doing. If you think you can waltz back here and... and... . Well, it won’t work. Don’t forget, I know the real Jake Rollins. And he lost his charms for me a long time ago.”

The next moment he had her backed up against the wall of the stall, his face inches from hers, strong hands on either side of her face. He smelled like the elements, earth, sky, and wind, and her imagination added the smoky odor of fire. Like freedom. Like danger. Her heart pounded at racehorse speed as she gazed up at him. Up close and way too personal.

My God, she’d forgotten just how blue his eyes were. Deep, vibrant blue, like a clear Texas sky after a passing thunderstorm. Deep enough to drown in. She felt dizzy, disoriented.

He intended to kiss her.

Her chin came up as the realization hit, and she glared at him, daring him to do it. If Jake thought a stroll down memory lane would have her mooning over him again, he had another thing coming. She was a grown woman, not a teenager in love for the first time.

But he made no move to touch her. Instead, he spoke very softly, asking, "What do you think of him?”

Anna stared at him blankly. "Think of who?”

He jerked his head toward the bay. "Slick. My stallion.”

"I don’t know. I can’t see him,” she said breathlessly. And at the moment her memory wasn’t kicking in.

He moved aside, and she began to breathe again. A pang shot through her, which she assured herself was relief, certainly not disappointment.

"So, what do you think?” he repeated, his voice soft, deep, dangerous.

Dangerous? Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. Cursing her overactive imagination, she looked at the horse. "He’s nice,” she admitted. "Well-behaved for a stallion.”

He backed off, glaring at her like she was nuts. "Nice? A cool drink on a hot day is nice. A warm fire on a cold day is nice. A stud like this is—”

Irritated, she interrupted. "Fine. He’s gorgeous, and you know it. What’s your point?”

"He’s the point. Slick is what I’m doing back here. I’m going to breed and raise cutting horses.”

Mary was right. Anna’s stomach felt like lead. "You’re staying? Here, in Happy?”

His smile said it all. "Back for good.”

"On your father’s ranch? And he agreed to that?”

"I didn’t ask him. I’m looking for a place of my own.”

He’d obviously forgotten what life in the small Panhandle town was like. Ordinary, dull. And Jake had never been either of those. Nor, if his past actions were any indication, could he tolerate those things on a daily basis. He’d always lived for excitement. He couldn’t have changed that much.

"You’ll be bored silly within a week,” Anna said, putting her thoughts to words. "You’re not serious.”

"As a heart attack, darlin’,” he told her with a devilish grin.

"Maybe that’s what you think right now, but let me give you the most likely scenario. You’ll get everyone in Happy excited about this rodeo, have them counting on you to do your part, and then you’ll leave town before it’s even planned. And guess who that leaves holding the bag?”

Anger flashed in his eyes, intensifying the blue. "And you base this conclusion on something that happened sixteen years ago. I was twenty years old when I left home, Anna. Not much more than a kid. I don’t suppose it’s occurred to you I might have changed.”

"Not in this lifetime,” she said.

He took a step closer, not quite touching her, but close enough she felt his body heat. She didn’t like that smile; it was entirely too knowing.

"I see what it is. You’re scared. That’s why you don’t want to work with me on this rodeo.”

"Scared? Of you?” Tossing her hair back over her shoulder, she gave him a wintry smile. "Fat chance. The only fear I have is that you’ll duck out.”

He touched her then, just his fingers lingering on her cheek. "You can’t deny there’s chemistry between us still, any more than I can.”

She laughed. "Your ego is so inflated, if I stuck a pin in you, you’d pop.”

"Yeah?” His gaze focused on her mouth. "Then I guess you won’t mind giving me a demonstration of how indifferent you are.”

As soon as he spoke, she knew what he meant to do. Stepping quickly out of his reach, she said, "I don’t think that will be necessary.”

"Afraid to put it to the test?” he asked. And smiled again.

The wicked, wicked smile, that had always made her melt, hadn’t dimmed with age. Nothing about the man had dimmed with age. Show some backbone, Anna, she told herself.

"Give it up, Jake. I’m not taking the bait,” she said and strolled out of the barn. Her life would be a lot easier if she didn’t wonder exactly what it would be like to kiss Jake again.

His laughter followed her, and she gave a fleeting, if satisfying, thought to turning around and smacking that laughter right out of him. Lucky for Jake she wasn’t a violent woman.

Lucky for Jake she decided indifference would spike his guns better than anger.

But Anna knew she hadn’t fooled him. And she damn sure hadn’t fooled herself. Jake Rollins still got to her. He always would.

 


 


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