Excerpt: Once Upon A Cowboy

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Prologue

At the A-OK Corral, outside Lullabye, Colorado…

Once Upon a Cowboy, Updated FinalHolt Winston flipped through the stack of resumes cluttering his desk, his expression growing darker by the minute. Why the hell had he waited so long to fill the last remaining wrangler position? Procrastination wasn’t his usual style. But it sure had grabbed hold on this particular task.

He glanced at the next resume and tossed it aside with a practiced flick of his fingers. He knew damned well why he sat here as stubborn as a mule asked to jump the Grand Canyon. It was for one reason and one reason only.

Gwen. As usual, he could trace the root of his recent woes straight to his city-loving ex-wife. When she’d waltzed out the door, she’d scooped up and pocketed every last penny in his bank account. She’d even cleaned out the spare change under his couch cushions. She’d come as close to bankrupting him as he’d ever care to get.

Turning the A-OK Corral into a dude ranch offered his only chance for salvation. Not that he liked it. No way, no how. Unfortunately, it didn’t change a damn thing. What was done was done. What remained as a result… Well, he’d just have to swallow it down like some sort of foul tasting elixir.

He turned his displeasure on the stack of resumes. Even so, hiring hands for a dude ranch gnawed at him, twisting in his gut like a blunt-edged knife. Being good with rope, horse, and cow didn’t count for much anymore. To be worth their salt, wranglers who worked dude ranches had to be good with people, too. A sorry state of affairs, that’s what it was. But one he’d put up with until he’d got himself back in the black. And the only way to accomplish that involved opening his gates to outsiders.

Now because of his little aversion, all the good wranglers were taken. Which left him a day late, a dollar short, a man shy and knee deep in cow– Hold the horses!

He snatched a resume from the pile and tipped back his hat. Well, now. If that didn’t beat all. Here in the middle of this heap of manure, he’d found a gold nugget. A gold nugget by the name of Tex Greenbush. A natural born cowboy who, if the people recommending him weren’t exaggerating, could “sweet talk the rattle off a diamondback.”

Considering the strange and varied “city slickers” who visited each year, a sweet talking wrangler was one he couldn’t afford to pass up. Hell, he couldn’t afford to pass up a wrangler who could string more than two words together.

That decided, he yanked his standard contract from a drawer, scrawled his signature on the bottom, and stuffed it into an envelope with a brief acceptance note. A lick and a stamp and it was ready for the post office. With a practiced snap of his fingers, he sent the envelope spinning lazily through the air. It landed smack-dab in the center of the “outgoing” box on the far edge of his desk.

Then he tilted his oak swivel chair to a reckless angle and lifted a mud-spattered boot, dropping it square on top of the remaining resumes. Settling his hat low over his eyes, he grabbed his chipped mug and took a deep, satisfying swallow of coffee as thick as molasses and black as tar. Yep. Now that he’d taken care of that minor detail, he could enjoy the rest of his day.

Life was perfect.

* * *

A few days later in Richmond, Virginia…

Cami Greenbush whooped for joy. “I did it! Holy mackerel, he hired me!” Tossing the letter, envelope, and contract she’d received into the air, she rushed to the window and flung it open, leaning out farther than caution dictated. “Hey, everybody!” she shouted, thick black curls tumbling about her flushed face. “I’m not just a cowboy, any more. I’m Tex Greenbush. A gen-u-ine, hired-for-the-season, employed cowboy.”

Enthusiastic applause greeted her announcement. “Way to go, Cami,” one neighbor yelled.

“We knew you could do it!”

“That’s our girl.”

She grinned at the well-wishers. “This calls for one heck of a celebration. Texas style, of course. You’re all invited. Tonight. Up here. Seven o’clock. And fair warning, the chili’s gonna be tongue-blisterin’ hot.”

“Er, Cami,” her roommate, Diane, interrupted. “Have you read this acceptance letter?”

Cami retreated from her precarious position at the window. “Sure I have. It said, ‘You’re hired.’ What else is there to read?”

Diane sighed, studying the papers. “Well, the contract for one thing. It stipulates a two week trial period.”

“No problem.”

“No problem, unless this Holt Winston decides you can’t do the job. Then, according to this, he can fire you.”

“He won’t,” Cami reassured, crossing to the kitchen. “Did I buy extra chili peppers last time I went shopping? I’m sure I did. We’ll need lots for tonight.”

Diane trailed after her. “Will you please pay attention? Once Mr. Winston realizes you can’t rope, haven’t been near a ranch in more than twenty years, and the last horse you rode was made of plastic and connected to a carousel, he’ll have you on the next plane out of there.”

Cami poked through the refrigerator. “Train. Real cowboys use two, and only two, forms of transportation. Their horse. And, when they absolutely must, a train.”

“Girlfriend!”

“What?”

“He’s going to discover you lied on that resume and that’s going to make him very angry.”

Cami rocked back on her heels and glared indignantly at her roommate. “Lied? What lies are you talking about?”

“Your roping skills for one,” Diane said pointedly.

“Oh, that.” Cami shrugged. “Everyone knows Texans are prone to exaggeration. I admit, one or two details might be open to broad interpretation. But I wouldn’t call them lies. Lying is wrong. And if there’s one thing I never am, it’s wrong.”

“There’s another thing you’re not.” Irony underscored Diane’s voice. “And that’s a wrangler.”

“Sure I am. I just need practice.”

“You need to have your head examined.”

Cami returned her attention to her pepper search. “You don’t understand.”

“What don’t I understand?” her roommate asked in exasperation.

“That I’m a Texan.” An aching intensity colored her words while wispy memories of her late father crowded in. If only he were here to see her now. Daddy’s little cowboy. It was her dream. Her goal. The one thing that meant more to her than anything else in her entire life. Determination ripped through her, giving weight and passion to her words. “And being a Texan means I’m a cowboy by birth. The rest will come naturally.”

Diane groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“It’s not a problem,” Cami insisted. “You’ll see. Cowboying is in my genes.” With a smothered exclamation, she grabbed a plastic bag half hidden behind a carton of milk. “Found you, you devils.” She held the chili peppers aloft and grinned in triumph.

Life was perfect.


Chapter One

Wes slowed his battered pickup and made a sharp right, bouncing onto a long dirt road. “Here we are,” he said to Cami. “Around this next bend is the A-OK Corral.”

Cami scooted to the edge of her seat and strained for her first glimpse of the place she’d call home for the next several months. The truck cleared a rise and a huge ranch appeared before her. She sighed in delight. It was the embodiment of a lifelong fantasy and perfect in every detail.

The builder had tucked the two story log house into a hillside. Behind it the Rocky Mountains rose sharply, stabbing the intense blue sky with craggy, snowcapped peaks. A stand of ponderosa pine surrounded the buildings and a sweep of green daisy-studded scrub grass bobbed beneath the late spring breeze like a living welcome mat.

Off to the right of the main house and dotted among the trees were several smaller cabins. For the help, she wondered, or the guests? To the left stood the barn and corral. A meadowlark called to her from a fence post, it’s flutelike song a pleasant welcome. She inhaled deeply, taking in the brisk mountain air. What could be more ideal than this?

She turned to Wes. “Thanks for the lift,” she said with a wide grin. “And tell that wife of yours to visit real soon.”

“You can count on it. Remember, you promised to come by my shop for a soda next time you’re in Lullabye.”

Cami ticked off on her fingers. “And by Clara’s for more cowboy duds–she dressed me up real fine, didn’t she? And by Reverend Sam’s for a chat–lordy, that man can chat. And by Trudy’s Feminine Fripperies for any unmentionables I might need–though what half that stuff is used for, is beyond me.” She caught her breath before adding, “Oh, yeah. And by Lem’s Mercantile and General Gathering Spot for–well, just for the heck of it, I guess. That sure is one friendly town you have there. Who’s left to meet?”

Wes thought a minute. “You missed Tommy Torrino. But he’s down Denver way and won’t return ’til tomorrow. He’s our mayor.”

Cami grimaced. “I guess that’s what I get coming in a day early.”

Wes climbed out of his pickup and plucked her suitcase from the bed of his truck. “That’s youth. Always in a hurry to be gettin’ and doin’. Guess I’ll shove off, if you’re positive you’ll be okay.”

“Not just okay. Being back on a ranch…” To her horror, tears filled her eyes and she blinked rapidly to dispel them, offering a wobbly smile. “I’ve dreamed about it for a long time. I can’t believe I’m finally here.”

“Now, now.” He patted her shoulder. “You need anything, anything a’tall, you give me or Sadie a holler. Remember now, cellphone coverage is spotty out this way. But Holt has a landline. You call anytime, hear?”

Impulsively, Cami threw her arms around him. “Thanks, Wes.”

He gave her an awkward hug, than scrambled into his truck. “Tell Holt howdy. And don’t be a stranger, hear?”

“Will do.”

Wes started his engine and reversed out of the yard in a huge plume of dust. Cami waved, then turned and crossed to the ranch house. It seemed unnaturally silent. To be on the safe side, she banged on the front door. No one answered. Maybe arriving ahead of schedule hadn’t been the smartest idea, after all.

Then she shook her head. Nonsense. It showed incentive. It showed drive. It showed an eagerness to start work. Who wouldn’t appreciate that? She’d tuck away her suitcase on this fine porch of Mr. Winston’s and borrow his equally fine rocker. Eventually someone would show up to welcome her, and they’d be delighted she’d had the good sense to come early. In the meantime, she’d relax and enjoy the view.

“Look, Daddy,” she whispered, almost dancing in excitement. At least, she would if her brand spanking new jeans–no charge for the extra heavy-duty starch–permitted such an action. “I made it. It’s not quite home. But it’ll do.” She settled into the rocker and stretched out her legs, also a necessity given all that starch. “Fact is, it’ll more than do.”

She’d no sooner given the rocker a practice push than an approaching cloud of dust heralded the arrival of another vehicle. A few minutes later, a minivan pulled into the yard and a man in his late thirties climbed from behind the wheel, looking around in bewilderment. He poked his head in the open car window and said something to the woman seated on the passenger side. In the back, Cami could see several wriggling children. The family’s youngest member announced his presence with a strident wail.

Cami glanced from the silent ranch house to the car. This wasn’t right. These were guests, no doubt about it. Someone should be here to meet them. It wouldn’t do for their introduction to the A-OK Corral to be so lacking in welcome. Coming to a swift decision, she stood, gave her stiff britches a “forward ho” nudge with her hip to set them into motion, and strode across the yard toward the car.

“Howdy!” she shouted over the shrieks of their baby. “Cami Greenbush at your service.” She stuck out her hand.

The man latched onto it in relief. “Rob Radburn,” he said, pumping her arm up and down. “I didn’t think we’d ever get here. We’ve been on the road for four days straight, and the kids…” He turned a harassed gaze toward the van. “They’re sort of sick of being penned up in there.”

“Completely understandable.” Gingerly, Cami eased her crimped fingers from his desperate grip and peered in the open window. The woman on the passenger side stared blankly out the front windshield. “Er, your wife?”

A young freckle-faced redhead opened one of the sliding doors. “Aw, she’s been like that for the last day and a half. Randy was foolin’ around with his slingshot and it sort of went off by itself and beaned her one.”

Rob shuffled in the dust. “It was supposed to be a second honeymoon,” he mumbled. “But Rhonda and I couldn’t find anyone to take the kids.”

“Well, they’ll have plenty of running space here.” Cami leaned in, popped seatbelts at random, and hauled out the nearest squirming body. “So. Where do you all hail from?”

“Ohio. Columbus, to be exact.”

“You don’t say. Well, don’t worry.” She winked broadly. “I won’t hold it against you, even though I’m a Texan myself.”

He managed a weak grin. “Thanks. This is sort of new to us,” he admitted, clearly at a loss. “What should I be doing?”

“Unloading sounds good to me. I’ll start with these fellas, if you’ll unhook that roof rack.” She caught the belt of the next youngster and yanked him into the sunshine. Two bodies later, she came across the noisy one. “Hey, I think this little guy’s hungry. Is there a bottle handy?”

With a grunt, Rob unlatched the roof rack and struggled to free the first suitcase. “Try the cooler.”

Within minutes she had the baby freed from his car seat, a bottle in his mouth and peace restored. Next, she turned her attention to the assorted redheads wrestling in the dirt. “Okay, boys. Everybody grab a bag or suitcase and carry it to the porch. Once that’s done, I’ll show you some of the best yo-yo tricks this side of the Mississippi.”

It took a bit of work, but she soon had them organized. She even managed to coax Rhonda from the car, onto the porch, and into the rocker.

“Sit down anywhere. Make yourself comfortable.” Cami wriggled her hand into the pocket of her jeans and tugged out a yo-yo. “Rory, the baby doesn’t eat lizards. Give it up. And Rufus, you shake that can of soda one more time and you won’t get to try my Buckin’ Bronco trick. Now, come stand by me and watch how it’s done.”

She grinned at her obedient audience. Hey, this was a snap. She was really getting the hang of this cowboying stuff.

* * *

“I do believe we’ve got company, boss,” Gabby announced, reining in his mount beside Holt and Frank. “You expectin’ anybody?”

Holt swiveled in the saddle and studied his ranch house through narrowed eyes. “Only that new wrangler, Tex Greenbush. But he’s not due ’til tomorrow. Whoever they are, they’ve made a mistake.”

His foreman snorted. “Looks to me like that mistake’s taken over your entire front porch.”

Holt glanced at his neighbor. “They yours, Frank?”

“Could be,” he admitted with a shrug. “I have a passel of Radburns arriving anytime now. I suppose that could be them. Wonder why Miss Agnes hasn’t sent them on their way?”

“She’s on vacation,” Holt said. “Not due back until next week.”

He examined the group. They weren’t local, that was for damned sure. Even from this distance he could make out the standard uniform of a tourist–plaid shorts, T-shirt, white socks and sneakers, along with the mandatory camera strung around the neck. Most striking of all was the expanse of pale skin, which at this altitude, near guaranteed a nasty sunburn.

“It would appear I’ve been overrun by a herd of redheads–a herd of redheads with a mountain of luggage.”

Gabby yanked on his mustache. “Except for the one in the cowboy hat. He’s no redhead.”

“If your eyes weren’t as ancient as the rest of you,” Holt informed him drily, “you’d see he’s a female.”

“And a fine figured one at that,” Frank added. He leaned forward and squinted into the sun. “Getting old sure is hell. I can’t quite see what she’s playing with. Some kind of ball?”

“Nope. A yo-yo.”

Gabby peered down the mountainside. “Get on with you. A yo-yo? I never heard such a ridiculous–”

“You’ll see soon enough.” Holt circled his horse around a pile of boulders. “Come on. Let’s get this settled and those folks on their way. We’ve got fences to mend.” He nudged Loco into a trot and started down the hill, Gabby and Frank at his heels.

Pulling up alongside the porch, he eyed the group and buried a smile. Yep. Tourists. He tugged at the brim of his hat. “Excuse me,” he said. “Mind if I ask what’s going on here?”

The yo-yo whistled past the kids, coming to within a hair of Holt’s nose, froze in midair, then snapped back into the woman’s hand. In one smooth move it disappeared into the pocket of a heavily starched pair of jeans.

She turned to face him, a wide, appealing grin splitting her face. “Hey, there,” she called in greeting. She trotted across the wooden planks of the porch, her gait a bit stiff-legged from the batwing leather chaps she wore, and on down the stairs, huge, pointy spurs jangling with every step.

She was a looker, no two ways about it. At least, for a city slicker. He fought to keep a straight face, striving to ignore her pseudo-western gear. But he found it near impossible to ignore a loud red, white and blue checked shirt with silly silver fringe dangling from every conceivable seam. He found it even tougher to ignore her longhorn cow buckle, a buckle that threatened to gore anybody who came within courtin’ distance. But it was toughest of all to ignore the perfectly good Stetson perched atop her head. A Stetson some fool had dyed bubblegum pink and decorated with more feathers than a gaggle of geese. One good gust and she’d be airborne.

“Been shopping at Clara’s?” Holt couldn’t resist asking. Beside him, Frank choked. Gabby proceeded to thump their neighbor on the back. Hard.

Eyes as wide and blue as the morning sky stared up at Holt from beneath a tumble of thick, curly black hair. And then she smiled, the most adorable dimples he’d ever seen winking in her cheeks. “Clara did me up real fine, didn’t she?”

He swallowed his laughter, the ingenuousness of her expression stealing the urge to tease clean away. “She aims to satisfy,” he conceded gruffly.

This was a city woman, Holt reminded himself. He shouldn’t be seeing her as anything other than a second coming of Gwen, no matter how innocent she appeared on the surface. City was city. Period.

Her adorable dimples winked at him again and his train of thought evaporated as though it had never been. He’d never kissed a pair of dimples before, but these seemed like the perfect punctuation marks to a mouth a man could get lost exploring.

As though remembering her manners, she doffed her hat. Feathers spurted into the air, drifting downward to snag in her hair and in the fringe of her shirt. “How do. Cami Greenbush at your service. I work for Mr. Holt Winston and since he’s not around, I thought I’d help his guests unload and keep them entertained.” She gestured toward the porch. “This is Rob and Rhonda Radburn and their boys, Randy, Rory, Rufus, Rollie, Rusty, and–” She glanced uncertainly at the baby.

“Junior,” Rob supplied.

Cami grinned. “And Junior.”

Holt tensed, mild amusement rapidly dissipating. A horrible suspicion grabbed hold. A suspicion he sincerely hoped would prove wrong. “Did you say your name is Greenbush?” he bit out, praying his ears deceived him.

“I surely did. Actually, it’s Camellia Greenbush,” she admitted.

“Camellia…” His voice dried up.

She scowled. “God’s honest truth. I’m a Texan, myself. But my momma is from Virginia and thought it would be kinda cute to name me after her favorite shrub.”

He tried again. “Camellia…”

“Now, don’t rub it in. With the last name Greenbush, nobody would want to lug around a handle like Camellia. Leastwise, I wouldn’t. But I don’t hold it against Momma. She meant well. I guess. Still, I’d appreciate it if you’d call me Cami. Okay?”

For a split second stunned silence reigned. Then Frank exploded with laughter, Gabby muttered a colorful expletive, and Holt closed his eyes. No way. If there was an ounce of fairness in the world, it wouldn’t be true. But how many Greenbushes could one planet hold? The odds of this one being anybody other than the wrangler he’d hired were staggering.

He fixed her with a stern gaze. “First, Holt Winston’s around now. You’re conversing with him. Second, these aren’t my guests. They belong to my neighbor here, Frank Smith.”

Frank, still fighting to bring his amusement under control, flicked the brim of his hat with his forefinger. “Ma’am,” he said.

“And third,” Holt continued in a hard voice. “I don’t have an employee named Cami Greenbush.”

Not one whit abashed, that stunning smile reappeared, along with the adorable dimples. Lord help him, but they caused a calamitous reaction to certain inappropriate parts of his anatomy. An unwanted calamitous reaction. Hadn’t those inappropriate parts learned their lesson last time a city woman had sashayed across his path?

She took a step in his direction. “You may not have hired Cami Greenbush, but you do have an employee named Tex Greenbush and they’re both me.” She offered her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Winston.”

“Likewise, I’m sure. You’re fired.”

Her hand dropped slowly to her side, her smile faltering. “Fired?”

“Fired. I hired an experienced wrangler, not a duded up wannabe.”

She planted her hands on her hips and stuck her chin into the air, a flush blooming across her cheekbones. Holt released his breath in a silent sigh. He’d had close and personal experience with other females wearing that particular expression. Unfortunately, it usually meant the wearer intended to tear a strip off his hide with the cutting edge of her tongue.

“You can’t fire me,” she announced. “We’ve got a contract.”

He nodded. “And I just broke it.”

To his amazement, the light of battle faded and she burst out laughing. He shot a look at Gabby and Frank, relieved to see he wasn’t the only one she’d taken by surprise. Their jaws hung somewhere in the vicinity of their belt buckles.

“You figure she got hold of some locoweed?” Gabby asked in a loud aside, scratching his whiskered jaw in puzzlement.

Holt didn’t respond. Instead he leaned across his saddle horn and waited, waited until her laughter died and those incredible blue eyes were once again fixed squarely on his. Then he spoke in his most cordial–and most discouraging–tone of voice. The voice smart people took heed of. The one that kept even the more ornery of his wranglers toeing the line.

The one he used right before he decked someone.

“Something amusin’ you, miss?” he asked softly.

She didn’t appear in the least intimidated, let alone as scared as any soul in her proper mind ought to be. He watched in stunned disbelief as she stepped within reach of him and ran a gentle hand along Loco’s neck. To his utter disgust, the dumb horse stood there and took it.

“It’s just, I know a cowboy’s word means more than that. We have a contract. You’d sooner shoot yourself in the foot than go back on your word.” She peered at him from beneath ridiculously long, thick lashes. Not a lick of makeup touched her porcelain complexion, it’s pale perfection marred only by the sweetest smattering of freckles. And yet he’d never seen a woman more beautiful, every bit of it one hundred percent natural. “Isn’t that right?”

It took an instant for her words to penetrate, no doubt because he’d been distracted by those bitty freckles dusting her nose, along with the insane need to count each and every one of them. The instant his brain kicked into gear again, his brows tugged together. “Where the hell did you get such a harebrained notion as–”

“Er, Holt?”

He turned and glared at his foreman. “What?”

Gabby gave a significant nod toward the porch. “You was sayin’?”

Holt glanced at the litter of pitcher-eared redheads lining his railing. Sixteen narrowed, unblinking eyes appraised him with cold disapproval. “I was saying… I… You…” He fought hard to rein in the words clamoring to be spoken. Jamming his Stetson low on his brow, he gritted his teeth. Blasted female. “I was saying, gol’durn it, that of course a cowboy always keeps his word.”

She beamed. There was no other word for it. Even the smattering of freckles across her pert upturned nose glowed. “I knew it. A cowboy, a real cowboy is always true to his horse, true to his woman, and true to his word.”

Gabby slapped a gloved hand to his chest. “God bless America!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, shut up, you old buzzard,” Holt muttered and dismounted.

He stepped in Cami’s direction, grabbed one of the wide brass horns of her longhorn belt buckle and hauled her in close. He lowered his head until their hat brims collided.

She stared up at him, her expression all sweet and innocent. Not that it fooled him. Hell, no. The light flowery scent of her warred with the more familiar odor of sweat and horses. Lord, she was a pretty little thing. But pretty little things were about as welcome on his ranch as curds in the buttermilk. Especially after Gwen.

He didn’t dare allow another pretty little thing on his spread. Not when his last experience almost cost him the ranch his family had owned for 109 years. Not even when this one had eyes bluer than blue, dimples he could get lost in, and–dear God–those freckles. His mouth tightened and he spoke quietly in her ear, determined to ignore the way her silky black curls blew against his face and tickled his jaw.

“Listen up real close, Tex. You help those fine folks settin’ on my porch off of it and on their way. And then you and I are going to exchange a word or two about that resume you sent and that contract we signed. Got it?”

She nodded energetically, her brim clipping his and knocking both their hats askew. “Got it,” she said. “I’ll take care of it right away, boss.” She swung around. The wickedly curved horn on her buckle caught him in the gut and snagged his shirt.

“Son of a–”

The sound of rending cotton and popping snaps brought her up short. “Oh, dear,” she said with a gasp and turned back.

“Whoa, Nellie!” Holt dodged a swipe from the opposite horn, moving away before she could do any real damage.

“Put a rope on that maverick she’s wearing,” Gabby suggested, “before it turns you from a bull to a steer.”

Holt examined his gaping torn shirt and the long, angry scratch scoring his stomach. Anger stirred and he nailed her with a look. “This is not a good start to our relationship,” he announced.

She gulped, her gaze fixed on his injury. “Is that…blood?”

He took one look at her suddenly white face and slapped a hand to the scratch. “No, it’s not,” he lied without compunction. “It’s ooze.”

“But, it’s red.” She swayed. Gently. From side to side.

“Right. It’s red ooze.” As much to distract her as for his own peace of mind, he held out his free hand. “The buckle, Tex. Give it over.” He gave the order in his most implacable tone of voice.

A hint of color returned to her cheeks, his diversion tactics apparently working. “But my pants…”

“Those britches of yours have enough starch in them to stand on their own. They’ll stay up just fine, belt or no belt. Now give it to me before you put someone in the hospital.”

With a great show of reluctance, she unhooked the belt and slid it through the loops. “I’m real fond of this buckle,” she said wistfully. “I’ve dreamed of owning a buckle like this for a long, long time. Don’t you like it?”

Now she’d done it. Gone and made him feel like a heel. A heel making a fuss over a little bitty nothing of a scratch. Shoot. “It’s a fine buckle,” he found himself saying.

He avoided looking at Gabby and Frank. He knew if he did the two would get to laughing and he’d be forced to discourage them, undoubtedly with his fists. Matters would slide downhill from there, and more ooze would be spilled. Plain and simple, keeping his attention focused on Tex seemed the wisest course of action for all concerned.

“Really?” she said. “You really think it’s a fine buckle?”

“A buckle like that demands respect. A lot of respect.” He glanced downward at his torn shirt again. “And a lot of distance.”

She peered at him hopefully. “Then I can keep it on?”

He wasn’t that stupid. “No.”

She sighed, handing over the belt. “Okay. You’re the boss.”

“You got that straight.” He held the thing gingerly by one horn and jerked his thumb toward the family of redheads. She took the hint.

She jangled onto the porch and faced the Radburns with an encouraging smile. “Okay, boys, everybody grab a suitcase or bag and haul it to the car.” Rhonda clung to the arms of the rocker and moaned.

“Can’t we stay here?” Rufus demanded. “I wanna be with you.”

Cami ruffled his hair. “I wish you could, buster. But it seems you belong next door. Now get going. Rollie, you let that mouse out of your pocket before you get in the car. Rob? Think it’ll be too much trouble to reassemble the roof rack?”

“Not at all. I’ll get right on it, Cami.” He hustled toward the car.

“Rhonda, you come with me, honey. Now, now. Whimpering won’t solve anything. Give me the baby. Heavens, looks like there’s been a flood south of the border. We’ll have him changed in no time.”

Holt watched in amazement as, without missing a step, she plucked the diaper bag from the pile of luggage, settled the wriggling baby on top of a canvas tote and commenced to buff, puff, and dust. In no time, she’d restored a cooing infant to his mother’s arms and convinced the contrary woman to return to her car. Once they were settled, Cami poked her head in the window.

“Here you go, boys. Take my yo-yo and do some practicing. I’ve got plenty more where that one came from. I expect next time I see you, you’ll put me to shame with the stunts you can do. No, no, Rusty. Bopping your poor momma is not a good trick.” She pulled back and waved. “Don’t be strangers, now. We’re just one big, happy family around here. So, you come and visit real soon. Hear?”

“Well, now,” Gabby muttered. “If that don’t beat all.”

Frank nodded in agreement. “Wish I could stick around and see if she’s as smooth a wrangler as she is a talker. But I better start for home. Once my housekeeper gets a load of those Radburns, she’s gonna up and quit on me. No question about it.”

Holt gave them a look of disgust. “Nobody who dresses like that has been within spittin’ distance of a ranch, and you both know it.” He folded his arms across his chest. “She’s no wrangler. I’d bet my bottom dollar on it.”

His gaze wandered in her direction. No, he realized grimly, she wasn’t a wrangler, but she was trouble. He didn’t doubt for a minute Tex could sweet talk a chicken out of the jaws of a starving coyote. He didn’t intend to let her sweet talk him. No, sir. Not him.

And yet… Doggone it. With all that black hair hanging halfway to her waist in tight, shiny curls, even the back of her appealed. Not to mention her nipped-in waist, a pert little rump and long, lean legs that could clamp around his saddlebags any day of the week. She was too pretty by half. Which meant the only way to protect himself was to get her off his ranch. Pronto. Before she opened her mouth and changed his mind for him.

She turned and practically sashayed across the dusty yard to his side. He forced himself to be fair. With those ridiculous chaps and jeans, sashaying was probably the only way she could move. He spoke before she had the chance. No point in giving her an unfair advantage. “I’m calling your bluff, Tex. Time to put up or pack up.”

She didn’t seem the least concerned. “I’m ready when you are,” she said.

He gave an abrupt nod. “I’ll go find your resume and we’ll get this nonsense over and done with.” He strode toward the ranch house and snagged his foreman by the arm. “Get Petunia,” he ordered in a quiet aside.

Gabby started. “Petunia? You sure?”

Holt risked a quick look over his shoulder. Tex stood in the middle of the drive as soft and fresh as newly churned butter. He almost changed his mind. Almost. Then her dimples winked at him. “Just do it!” he barked, slamming his hat down on his head.

He stomped up the porch steps, his inappropriate parts once again in an uproar. Hell’s bells and little fishes! That woman was yanking his chain something fierce. And worst of all?

She didn’t even know it.

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