THE HARD-TO-GET COWBOY
Harlequin Special Edition
The marriage proposals are flying—and Laila Cates is saying “I won’t” to every eligible cowboy from Montana to Texas! The independent beauty has sworn off romance. But we hear she’s been changing her tune ever since the new man in town set his sights on her…
Settling down is the last thing on Jackson Traub’s mind. The oilman-turned-rancher is here to take care of family business, but the minute he sees Laila, he knows she’s got to be his. And soon, the sparks between them have the whole town ablaze! Maybe the good-time cowboy and Thunder Canyon’s most eligible bachelorette are having second thoughts about this whole happily-ever-after business….
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Excerpt from THE HARD-TO-GET COWBOY
Laila Cates stood on the stage in front of the cheering crowd, dressed in a white evening gown and a blue sash while holding a fresh bouquet of celebratory flowers.
“A five-time winner!” said the master of ceremonies, whose voice rang through the tent where the pageant was being held. “Give it up some more to Laila Cates for taking yet another Miss Frontier Days title!”
She touched the crown on her head. It’d been a long time since she’d been up here. Seven years since she’d stopped entering the pageant, seven years since she’d wanted to be known for more than what was on the outside.
But this year she’d come back to prove a point to Thunder Canyon.
Scanning the crowd, she saw the happy faces of the neighbors and friends she’d grown up with. People she worked with at the Thunder Canyon First Fidelity Bank, day in and day out. Her best friend Dana, who’d entered Laila into the pageant without Laila even knowing it, clapped harder than anyone.
She’d been the one who’d dared her to prove a point to the town, and Laila had taken her up on it, singing a song during the talent competition that emphasized a woman’s hard work in this world and the accomplishments all of them could celebrate as they grew older.
And the judges had clearly appreciated it, recognizing that every year that passed by for a woman could be a plus rather than a negative.
After the noise eased down, Laila went to the microphone, shaking her head. “So I’m twenty-nine going on thirty. The jump to a new decade seems to be a big deal in most women’s lives. We’re supposed to be leaving behind our best, youthful years, and truthfully, I’ve been a little nervous about that. I mean, this is where we get wrinkles, right? This is where our looks begin to fade.” She smiled again. “Well, that’s why I decided to compete in the pageant this year, to see if any of that mattered when it comes right down to it.”
A few hoots, hollers.
She went on. “You all have shown tonight that age and life experience are important—that they add to who we are and how others see us. And, even though this is definitely my last time competing for the title, I’m looking forward to a new win each year, except not on a stage. In life.In everything.”
Another round of applause, and Laila gave a jaunty little salute to the crowd, ready to give up the stage to all the other women who wanted to show Thunder Canyon what they had to offer—no matter what their age—in the future.
That was when the audience parted to let through a strapping, broad shouldered man with blond hair.
At first, Laila thought he was merely there to say congratulations. It was Hollis “Cade” Pritchett, the man she’d been seeing on and off for years on a casual basis. Cade, as he was known to just about everyone but his sister and her husband, accepted what Laila had professed all along—that she never wanted to get married—and that had apparently suited him just fine.
Until now, it seemed.
“Marry me, Laila,” he said loudly.
As his deep voice carried, Laila blinked, then put her hand over the mic. The device whimpered with feedback as a wave of silence traveled over the audience.
This wasn’t like Cade, to be joking around. And she suspected that it was a joke, because he was acting…different. Heck, she could even say that the normally level-headed woodworker might’ve even tipped back a few beers, judging by the high flush on his cheeks. But Cade wasn’t a big drinker.
So what explained the intensity in his gaze?
His brother Dean broke out of the crowd and stood by Cade, wearing a tight grin and slapping him on the back, buddy-style.
“Don’t listen to him, Laila,” the youngest Pritchett boy said. “I’m the one you should marry!”
Okay—now it was pretty obvious from the way Dean slightly slurred that they had been indulging for some odd reason. Like his brother, Dean was the strong, silent type, hardly prone to tomfoolery like this.
By now, the crowd had broken into a chorus of laughter, urging the Pritchetts on. Laila kept her composure, as well as her sense of humor. This was starting to feel like a circus act, but maybe she’d only encouraged that by competing in the pageant at this age when it was supposed to be a young girl’s competition.
She would take her knocks, because using a pageant title to make a statement about inner beauty was loaded with irony, and not everyone was probably going to get it.
It was just another idea some of the town probably wouldn’t take seriously from her.
Just then, another man came to the front of the stage—a guy who wasn’t as familiar to Laila, even though she knew darn well who he was.
Tall, lean and roguish in his jeans, boots and black Western shirt, Jackson Traub was new in town—one of the Texans who’d come to Thunder Canyon to develop his family’s oil shale business.
And he was also known to be a troublemaker who’d brought about a wild ruckus at his own brother’s wedding reception several months ago.
Was he about to stir things up here, too, just for the heck of it?
Just because rumor had it that he enjoyed raising Cain?
Laila should’ve been sending him a “don’t you dare do it” glare, but…
But just look at him.
She was too busy taking in a deep breath, feeling a burst of tingles as they rolled through every single inch of her as he grinned up at her on the stage.
Lord help her, but a bad-boy reputation did something to a girl who’d spent her life doing everything right.
He swept off his hat and held it over his heart while raising his own voice over the crowd’s. “Neither of these boys is worthy. I’m going to marry the lovely Laila!”
Something primal hit her in the belly, and hard.
But it had nothing to do with the ridiculous proposal. Nothing at all.
It was only that his brown hair was tousled so carelessly by the removal of his hat, and even from the stage, Laila could see the glint in his dust-devil brown gaze as he looked up at her and grinned even wider.
In spite of everything, she grinned right back, though hers was of the sweet/sarcastic variety. No one was going to make a complete mockery out of this night.
And no one—not even a slick Texan—was going to make it all better with a naughty smile and a joke, either.
Jackson Traub lifted an eyebrow, as if appreciating her feisty look.
As if challenged by it.
It took some effort to drag her gaze away from him—my, did it ever—but she turned her attention back to the audience while their laughter died down.
“See?” she said. “Here’s just proof that life really doesn’t end after your twenties, girls. Everything improves with age, including the amount of attention.”
As cheers erupted, she waited for silence before continuing.
“But you all know that my heart belongs to Thunder Canyon. And, for all you fellas out there who’d planned to offer more proposals, you know I adore every last one of you, but I must tell you once and for all that I. Am.Never.Getting.Married. Life’s too short!”
As the place went nuts, she winked at the crowd, then smiled at the Pritchett brothers, telling them that there were no hard feelings about their ill-timed shenanigans.
Dean was glancing at his brother, as if to gauge Cade’s reaction.
And what Laila saw in Cade just about chipped away at her heart.
It seemed as if he’d just been kicked in the gut, his face ruddy, his hands fisted at his sides.
Oh, God. Had he been serious about proposing?
No way—not when she’d been very clear over the years how she felt about settling down. Not Cade Pritchett—a man who never impulsively shouted out things like proposals in front of a hundred other people.
Without a word, he turned to leave, his shoulders stiff, and Dean followed him, leaving the third suitor behind.
As Laila met the amused gaze of Jackson Traub, the last man standing, he put his hat back on, then touched the brim. The gesture might’ve been a touché from someone who clearly appreciated her firm stance on singlehood. Word had it that he’d even caused that scene at his brother’s reception because he was the ultimate bachelor, and he was intent on swearing off matrimony, himself. It was just that he hadn’t exactly been speaking to a sympathetic audience at a wedding, for heaven’s sake.
Before he turned around and disappeared into the crowd, he sent Laila one last wicked grin.
Then he was gone, leaving her with a burning yen to see him again, for better…
Or for worse.
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From the book: The Hard-To-Get Cowboy
By: Crystal Green
Harlequin Special Edition
Publication Date: 10/11
By: Harlequin Books S.A.
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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