THE LAST COWBOY
Silhouette Special Edition #1752
The Wycliffe, Texas books
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Excerpt from THE LAST COWBOY
After walking this earth for forty-two years, Jackson North had drifted through enough fights to know how to deal with a sticky situation.
If you were in a bar and a roughneck didn't take too kindly to the way you sipped a beer, buy him enough to either make him your buddy or make him pass out. If you felt a pair of eyes boring into you from across a smoke-shrouded room, never look up from the table to acknowledge the threat. And if worse ever came to worst, let the fists fly and worry about the damage later.
But Jackson was exhausted these days. Too bone-weary to play peacemaker, too disillusioned to care about much of anything anymore.
That's why--when he felt the punch skim past him only to miss the victim standing on the other side of his body-- Jackson actually thought of turning tail and running from this particular confrontation.
He tensed and glanced down at the battling little boy and girl.
The punch-thrower came perilously close to leaning against Jackson while taunting his opponent.
"I'm gonna get you, Alina."
"Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!" said the girl tot who was hovering ever closer to Jackson's other leg.
They were closing in. It was harder to breathe now.
Why'd this have to go and happen? Here he'd been, perfectly content to linger on the fringes, when the two children had burst out of nowhere. They'd caught Jackson off guard when they'd sprinted over to him from the main lawn of Oakvale Ranch--where pony rides, a chili cook off, games and carnival attractions were sending off sparks of laughter and country-western music.
Damn Rip McCain for dragging Jackson and the ranch's few other cowboys over here, all but forcing them to be social and "mingle with the neighbor people." Hell. It was bad enough that Jackson's most recent home—the Hanging R—would soon see the arrival of Old Rip's great nephew, who'd recently lost his parents and didn't have any other relatives to take him in.
Dammit, if Jackson had known there'd be a little boy living with them, he wouldn't have hired on just over a month ago. If--
The sound of a razzing tongue distracted him.
"Stop that, Konrad," the young girl said from Jackson's right flank. "I'm telling Mom on you."
This time, the razzer did lean into Jackson's leg. The touch completely froze him, lodging his heart in his throat. Memories of two other children--his sons--crushed his chest from the outside in.
"Kids..." The word choked out of him as he helplessly raised his hands out of their way.
He should've retreated from the discomfort that was slowly enveloping him, but when he'd first gotten to this Leukemia Society fund-raiser, he'd made the unfortunate choice of standing with his back to one of the festive tents, cutting himself off from contact.
Cutting himself off from an escape, too.
As Alina swatted at Konrad, the boy hugged Jackson's leg. Jackson's three-year-old son, Lucas, used to do that--hug his leg.
Back when Jackson was another man.
Without thinking, he rested his fingertips on this child's head, bringing Konrad to a slow-motion halt as Jackson envisioned Lucas's reddish-brown hair--hair just like his ex-wife's.
As a long-suffering numbness swallowed the wrangler, he remembered five-year-old Leroy's freckled smile, too.
As Konrad glanced up at Jackson, the man jerked his hand away at the toothless surprise of a gaping mouth, an unfamiliar face.
"Konrad! Alina!" said a female voice.
Stepping forward, away from the suddenly quiet children, Jackson nearly bumped into the caller. Instinctively, he reached out, grasping her soft shoulders, steadying her.
Her eyes were all he saw before he averted his gaze, lowering his hands so he could erase the burn of contact by easing his palms against his hips and gripping denim for some mental balance.
She laughed, but he didn't look back up at her.
"So," she said. "You're all that was keeping the terror twins from ripping each other apart?"
Jackson sort of grunted, hoping that would do for an answer. In the meantime, he tried to distance himself inch by inch, wondering if he could fade into the background again. Wondering if he could get his pulse back to its regular road-to-nowhere speed.
"Well, you two." He could hear her moving toward the twins. "I think you need to say sorry to this man for putting him in the middle of your silliness."
He chanced a wary look while she gathered the kids.
Something in his chest clenched at the sight of her: A light blue short-sleeved blouse and a wispy ankle-length flowered skirt with a wide-brimmed hat to protect her fair skin against the August sun. Long hair, as white-yellow as the meringue on top of those pies they were selling in one of the charity food tents. And when she tilted her head toward him and smiled, he got a second gander at those eyes: playful as a kitten's, tipped up at the corners, a twinkling shade of bluebonnet.
She was almost a throwback to simpler times. A prairie girl full of light and innocence, caught in a museum painting or a fantasy of days gone by.
Jackson cleared his throat and squinted. He'd been gaping. Might as well face the music.
"If the kids here apologize to anyone," he said, "it should probably be to each other. Not to me."
The little boy shrugged. "We fight all the time."
"Yeah," the girl echoed.
Growling in mock frustration, the blonde pretended to grab the twins' ears. "You're both a real big help to your mom. Here she is, just out of the hospital with another baby, and you're running around wreaking havoc. Why I outta..."
She made an ear-twisting motion with her hands, and the twins giggled.
Jackson took a couple more steps back, chest heavy with things he'd rather forget. Family. Kids. Inevitable anguish.
"We'll be good, Felicia," the girl said, hugging the blonde.
Not to be outdone, the boy joined the embrace. "Don't be mad at us."
She laughed again, her words muffled by their enthusiastic cradling. "I will be mad if I see you going after each other again. I'm serious."
Unable to help it, Jackson found his eyes glued to her once more.
"Go to your mom." She hustled the twins away, pointing toward a well-padded woman holding a swaddled infant and standing near a tiny merry-go-round. The kids took off, greeting their mother with clumsy energy.
The blonde didn't move for a moment, just kept her gaze on them. A sad sort of gaze. The corners of her mouth twitched once before she sighed and crossed her arms over her chest.
The sounds of carnival music mixed with a Clint Black song, filling the silence between them. Finally, she straightened up and walked toward him, all cheer and sunshine once again.
"I really am sorry about that."
"Forget it." Could he leave without Rip getting all over his case for being a curmudgeon?
Then again, did he really want to go now that the day had become a little more interesting?
She was close enough so he could smell her perfume--something as pure as summer petals.
Closing his eyes, Jackson tried to fight whatever it was that addled his brain. He was beyond flirtation and intimacy. Had been for years.
When he looked again, she was sticking out her hand.
"I'm Felicia Markowski. I work in housekeeping here at Oakvale. And those were two of many, many second cousins."
He hesitated to accept her touch, entertained a slew of curse words in his mind then slid his fingers into her gentle grip. Still, Jackson didn't allow himself the luxury of enjoying her skin. Instead, he ignored the warmth, the tingling bolt of awareness that jagged through his body.
"Jackson North," he said. "Hanging R."
"Really?" She didn't seem to mind that he'd just about treated her handshake like a man whipping off a clinging snake that'd buried its fangs in to him. "Rip hasn't hired anyone in months."
Discomfited, Jackson hoped he could leave soon.
"I'm surprised he took on another employee," she added, "what, with all the rumors about the ranch being in such bad shape. We all love Rip McCain to death, but he wouldn't ask for help even if it started licking his ankles and begging for attention."
Jackson thought of the Hanging R's dilapidated buildings, the dwindling stock of longhorn cattle, the rusted tools and broken fences.
But he didn't say squat.
She must've noticed him fidgeting like a teenage boy who'd been caught climbing out of a girl's window with his pants around his ankles. Her smile was way too amused to be casual.
"So you go by Jackson, huh? If we're going to be neighbors, can I call you Jack?"
She wouldn't be calling him anything once he finally got back to the ranch and stayed there. "If it pulls your trigger. Sure."
"It does." A laugh bubbled out of her. "What brings you to these parts, Jack?"
"I... Well, what brings most wranglers to a ranch?"
"Oh, a private man. Got it." She didn't seem very put off by his clam-upped-ness. In fact, she was being so warm and welcoming that he could've mistaken it for something deeper.
Sure. Gorgeous blondes were always drawn to men like him: craggy as the face of a mountain, old enough to be her babysitter. And plenty of off-putting attitude to boot.
Might as well leave while the leaving was good—before he found himself in an actual conversation. He hated those. Hated having to make excuses when it came time to take the next step with a woman.
Tipping his hat in farewell, he started to walk off.
To be alone again...
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From the book: The Last Cowboy
By: Crystal Green
Imprint and Series: Silhouette Special Edition
Publication Date: 04/06
Copyright C: 2006
By: Harlequin Books S.A.
R and TM are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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