Authors: Lynnette Austin
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New York Boston
To Barbara Bent, a friend through life’s ups and downs, who has shown me New York City the way it should be seen! I stumbled on a rare gift when the two of us met at one of the very first get-togethers of the Southwest Florida Romance Writers.
And to the memory of my brother Brian Duffy, who, sadly, lost his battle with leukemia.
Books don’t write themselves, and this one has certainly been no exception. So many provided help, encouragement, and expertise, and I’d be remiss not to acknowledge them.
Thanks to my incredible agent Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency who believed in both me and the Maverick Junction series. To say I’m blessed to have her in my life—and in my corner—would be an understatement.
Lauren Plude, editor extraordinaire, has gone above and beyond in helping me take this book to new heights. Thanks for letting me bounce ideas off you and for not considering any question or concern too small or unimportant.
My critique partners, Diane O’Key and Joyce Henderson, the other two-thirds of the Three Musketeers, have my eternal gratitude. We’ve shared laughter and tears, celebrated success, and persevered through frustration.
Most of all, I want to thank my husband. Dave has provided love, encouragement, and confidence throughout the entire trip. He’s listened to me rejoice when the story was soaring and put up with my whining when it wasn’t, assuring me that everything would be fine. And Dave, thanks, too, for the endless supply of coffee and Peppermint Patties.
ou’ve got to be kidding me.”
Annelise Montjoy motored her Harley along what appeared to be the town’s main street. This was Maverick Junction?
A blue Cadillac, surely old enough to be in a museum, was parked nose-in to the curb. An incredibly ugly dog sat in the front seat.
Thank God, this, the final destination of her cross-country trip from Boston, was temporary. It looked like the kind of place you ran
from, not toward. If luck was on her side, she’d be out of here in a couple of weeks at the most.
And then a store door opened and her breath caught.
Look at that cowboy. So different from any of the men in her life. So…intriguing. She slowed to nearly a standstill and watched as he swiped an arm across his forehead, then dumped a grocery bag in the backseat of the old Caddy.
Cracking open a bottle of water, he turned his head in her direction. Her breath hitched as his gaze ran lazily over her, her bike. Then he snagged a Styrofoam cup from inside his car and filled it before setting it on the blistering pavement for the dog waiting patiently beside him.
Leaning against the faded fender, he thumbed back his battered Stetson and chugged the rest of the water. Twisting the cap back on, he tossed the bottle into the recycling bin beside the grocer’s door.
Annelise pulled her bike into a parking space across the street, deliberately turning her back on the stranger. While his clothes might have been stereotypical cowboy—worn jeans, a faded T-shirt, cowboy boots, and hat—he took everything from simmer to boiling point. The jeans hugged long legs, while the shirt stretched taut across his muscled chest. There was something very alluring about him and that surprised her. He wasn’t the kind of man she was usually drawn to.
He shouldn’t appeal to her.
Not so much as a breeze stirred. The flag on the post office hung limp, and the cheerful red, white, and blue balloons someone had hung outside a beauty salon drooped listlessly.
Unable to stop herself, she peeked in the bike’s rearview mirror. Cowboy was bent over, talking to the dog. Quite a view, but she wasn’t here to admire a fine jean-clad butt. She needed something cold to drink and something light to eat. Then she’d go in search of Dottie Willis and the apartment she’d rented over the Internet. Maverick Junction, Texas. Annelise wished she was driving through, wished she could view it as simply a spot on the map where she’d stopped for lunch one summer day.
Well, she’d just have to work fast.
But before she’d even taken two steps, her cell rang. She checked caller ID, blew out a huge sigh, and dutifully answered.
“Annelise, where are you? When are you coming home?” Her mother’s voice sounded strained.
“Don’t worry, Mom. Are you and Dad okay?”
“He’s had a good day. A good week, actually.” Her mother hesitated. “He misses you.”
“I miss him, too.”
“Then come home.”
“You’re being selfish.”
“No, I’m not. I’m trying to help while the rest of you stand by and do nothing.”
“We’re respecting Vincent’s wishes.”
Her grandfather, her strong, always in control grandfather, had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. After aggressive treatment by the country’s best doctors, Vincent Montjoy was in remission. But the prognosis wasn’t good. Her grandfather needed a bone marrow transplant, and none of the family matched.
And then, Annelise’s whole world had flipped upside down—again. There was hope. It turned out he might have a half sister. One who could carry the life-saving marrow match. One he’d adamantly forbidden anyone to track down.
Well, she would.
And that’s why she was in Maverick Junction, Texas. Why she’d ridden her Harley here from Boston.
Her first stop had been at a sorority sister’s whose husband was a whiz with both computers and genealogy. If anyone could ferret out the information she needed, it would be him. By the time she’d left the next morning, Ron had already been knee-deep in research for her.
But she hadn’t taken into account the physical toll of riding the heavy motorcycle a couple thousand miles. By the time she’d been on the bike for an eight-hour stretch, her butt and legs ached. Sharing the highway with semis, hour after hour, alone, was no picnic.
“Annelise Elizabeth Katherine Montjoy, you
get on a plane today and come home. We’ll arrange transport for that motorcycle of yours.”
“Not another word, honey. Tell me where you are, and I’ll phone you back once your travel arrangements are made. Silas will pick you up at the airport.”
Her mother sighed. “You’re sure you’re safe? Nobody—”
“I’m fine, Mother. Believe me. I’m right where I need to be.” With that, she hung up.
Guilt nagged at her. When you had as much money as her family, the threat of kidnapping always hung over you. For as long as she could remember, she’d had her own bodyguards. Which equaled no privacy. Two muscle-bound men tagging along had turned more than one date into a fiasco.
But she couldn’t let her parents or her grandfather worry. She’d call her cousin. Later. Right now, she was thirsty. She headed for the café.
* * *
Seated toward the back of Sally’s Place, Annelise heard the door open and close. The bell overhead jingled as outside heat rushed in. Without even looking, she knew who’d blown in with it. Well, he was no concern of hers. In all fairness, she doubted there was anywhere else to eat lunch in this one-pony town.
Annelise went back to studying the menu. Chili, country-fried steak, burritos, enchiladas, and just about anything that could be deep-fried.
A pair of dusty boots stopped at her table. She lifted her head and looked straight into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen. For an instant, all sense left her; speech deserted her.
“Seems there’re no tables left,” Cowboy said. “Mind if I sit with you?” Without waiting for an answer, he pulled out a chair.
She blinked, sanity returning. Her gaze swept the wealth of unoccupied tables. “No empty tables?”
“Well—” He held out his hands, palms up.
Up close, Cowboy was wicked handsome. If she wasn’t dead set on settling in today so she could head over to Lone Tree tomorrow— “Actually, I’m afraid I do mind.”
He cocked his head, tipped back his cowboy hat. “Not very neighborly.”
“Good thing I’m not your neighbor, then.”
“Ouch.” He grimaced. “I don’t bite, and I’ve had all my shots.”
Sadly, she shook her head. “I suppose someone told you that line was cute.”
“Nope.” He looked at the chair, then back at her.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a lot on my mind, and I really don’t want company.”
“Okay, let’s head at it from a different direction. I do. Need company, that is. I’ve been out on the ranch with nothing but surly bulls and even meaner cowhands for way too long. Sure would be a pleasure to sit across from you for a few minutes. I won’t hold you up. Honest. When you’re ready to go, you go.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Are all Texans this persistent?”
He narrowed his eyes in consideration. “We might be. Guess that’s why we lost so many good men at the Alamo. Texans hate to throw in the towel. Never can tell when things might start going your way.”
Despite herself, Annelise laughed. She hadn’t expected such a rough-and-tumble-looking cowboy to be so optimistic.
The owner chose that moment to wander over. “Hey, Cash, ain’t seen you in a while.”
“Been busy breaking in a couple new horses and doing some branding. So, how’s my favorite gal, Sally?”
“My feet hurt, and my cook’s throwin’ a tantrum. Other than that, all’s good.” Sally pushed at frizzy blond hair and snapped her gum. “How ’bout you?”
“Can’t complain. Tell you what I’d love right now, though. A tall glass of your sweet tea. Lots of ice.” He dropped into the chair beside her.
Annelise gaped at him. Cowboy was one smooth operator.
“Comin’ right up. How ’bout you, sweetheart? You want some tea?”
“Yes. That would be wonderful. Unsweetened, please. And I’d prefer to drink it without company.” She shot Cash a get-lost look. He simply smiled back.
Sally’s gaze shifted between the two of them. When Cash made no move to change tables, she asked, “Need a minute to look at the menu?”
“No. I’d like your house salad with vinaigrette dressing on the side.”
“That’s gonna be your lunch?” Cash scowled. “That’s all you’re getting?”
Annelise sat up straighter. “I hate to be rude, but I have a lot to do today. I came in for lunch. Not company.”
Still, he didn’t move.
What was with him? So much for Texans being gentlemen. Anger, an emotion she rarely allowed herself, lapped at her. Mentally counting to ten, she turned her attention to Sally. “Just the salad, please.”
“That’s not enough,” Cash said.
“Who are you? The lunch patrol?”
“You’d dang well be eating better if I was. I’d order a nice steak, some hand-cut fries, and a big old piece of Ms. Sally’s apple pie à la mode for you.”
“I’ll stick with my salad, thanks.”
When their waitress headed off, Cash said, “You’re sure more hospitable with her than you are with me.”
She shrugged. “Like I said, you can move to another table if you’d like.”
His gaze traveled past her, and he stood suddenly. “Excuse me.”
More than a little disappointed, she turned in her chair and watched him cross the room, his stride easy. Despite what she’d said, a traitorous part of her had actually hoped he’d stay.
He walked over to where an older woman struggled to slide her chair from the table. Giving her a quick kiss on the cheek, he reached out to her. “Can I help?”
With a sigh, the woman laid a shaky hand in his. “This getting old isn’t for sissies.” Standing, she said, “You’re a good boy, Cash Hardeman. But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about the snake you and Brawley Odell put in my desk.”
He picked up her purse and carried it with him as he walked her slowly toward the door. “You’ve got a memory like an elephant, Mrs. Sandburg.”
“And don’t you forget it.” At the door, she called out, “Sally, I left the check on the table. That pie of yours was as good as ever.”
“See you next week,” Sally answered.
“You bet.” She patted Cash’s cheek. “I can manage from here. Tell your mother hello for me when she and your dad get home.”
“Will do.” He waited till she started down the walk and then returned to Annelise’s table.
Something about the easy candidness of this Texas cowboy tugged at her. His kindness touched her heart. But she needed to stay focused on the reason she’d come.
“So.” He reached for the tea Sally slid him and took a long drink of the cool, soothing liquid. Setting it down, he asked, “Where were we?”
She raised her chin a notch. “I’d just told you that you could move if you didn’t like my company.”
“Right.” He grinned. “I like it fine, thanks. You have a name?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “But you’re not willing to share.” He shot out a hand toward her. “I’m Cash. Cash Hardeman.”
“I heard.” She hesitated, then sighed and extended her own hand. “Hello, Cash. I’m Annelise.”
“Nice to meet you, Annelise. You just get that bike?” He nodded toward the street. “Must’ve paid through the teeth for it.”
“My guilty pleasure.” She smiled. The bike represented her first rebellion—her first step toward independence. “I’ve had it for almost a year now. Some friends wanted to do the fall leaf tour on motorcycles. One of them took me to a Hanniford grocery store parking lot after hours and taught me how to ride. Then he helped me pick out a bike. My father about had a conniption.”
Cash laughed. “I can imagine.”
“Big bike for a wom—anybody to handle.”
“Oh, good save.” She laughed and shook her head. “You’re fast.”
“You’d better believe it.” He studied her a minute. “The fall leaf tour? So you’re from New England, Annelise?”
Her eyes shuttered. She’d screwed up. “No. I was there visiting.” She almost choked on the lie, but she had no choice. His expression said he wasn’t buying it. Well, too bad. Once she left this café, she’d never see Cash Hardeman again. A chance meeting. That’s all this was. It made no difference whether or not he believed her.
“You ride a lot?” he asked.
“Unfortunately, no. I took the bike out for two weekends last fall and it’s been parked ever since. Till this trip.”
“Too bad.” He swiped at the water ring on the table.
Her eyes widened. Through the front window, she watched the cowboy’s mud-brown dog sail through the air and scramble into the old car.
She pointed toward the window. “That big, hairy dog of yours just executed the best impersonation of Superman I’ve ever witnessed.”
“The animal may or may not be able to leap tall buildings, but he sure managed to clear the door of that big old monstrosity you’re driving. Right now, he’s working his way through the groceries in the backseat.”
“Oh, brother!” Cash jumped up and ran outside to salvage what he could.
She watched him go and stabbed a forkful of lettuce, wishing the salad would morph into that juicy steak he’d suggested. Oh, well, she sighed. Some things weren’t meant to be.
* * *
Two steps out the door, the heat sucker-punched Cash. And instead of sitting inside drinking iced tea with Ms. Ride-into-town-on-a-Harley, he was heading out to deal with his scoundrel of a dog.
“Staubach! What in the hell am I supposed to tell Rosie about her groceries, huh? Shame on you!” he scolded.
And shame on me
, he thought,
for leaving the dog alone
. Still…Annelise was some looker. All that black hair and those intense, ice-blue eyes. And the body. Whoa, boy!
Okay, she was about as friendly as a mama bear with week-old cubs. But if they’d been able to finish their lunch together, he might have been able to change that.