Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In (8 page)

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
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She threw Neal his shirt. It struck the middle of his chest. He caught it with one hand. “You saved me a long, boring trip back to your mother's place. I'll ride home from here. If you gentlemen will excuse me, I've wasted enough of my day.” With that, she turned on her heels, picked up the saddle and started for her horse.

Neal began to pull on his shirt and button it. Jake frowned at him. He handed Neal the reins of his horse and started after her. “Let me do that for you.”

“No need.” She smoothed the blanket on the pinto's back and lifted the heavy saddle.

Jake reached her and laid a hand over hers. “Let me help.”

She jerked the saddle away from him. “I said I can get it.” She threw the saddle up, hooked the stirrup over the horn and reached for the girth. Jake glanced at Neal with a puzzled expression.

Neal shrugged. “Sometimes it's best to let her have her own way.”

The pinto grunted in surprise as she yanked the cinch tight. She dropped the stirrup and turned to Jake. “I'll get the horse back to your mother tomorrow, if that's all right.”

“Don't worry about it. I'll send one of the hands to pick him up in the morning.”

“Suit yourself.” She mounted and headed out of the canyon without a backward glance. At the mouth, she turned north toward her home and rode out of sight.

Jake walked back to Neal. “I was worried you might get heatstroke out here, but I'd say you were in more danger from frostbite. What did you do?”

Neal handed him the reins of the bay and mounted the Appaloosa. “Very funny. Has anyone ever told you to mind your own business?”

“My wife tells me that all the time.” Jake swung up into the saddle.

“You should listen to her,” Neal snapped. He wheeled his horse and kicked him into a trot.

“She tells me that, too,” Jake yelled, trailing after his brother.

The creak of saddle leather and the clatter of hooves over stone were the only sounds as the men rode single file down the canyon floor. The heat was oppressive away from the shade. Overhead, a pair of hawks glided in large, lazy circles against the hard blue sky.

After a mile, the trail cut to the top of the canyon wall. Both horses scrambled up the steep slope and emerged onto the wide, grassy plateau where Neal had been thrown. Jake nudged his mount up beside Neal's, and they started across the prairie side by side.

“It might help to talk about it,” Jake suggested.

“Talk about what?” Neal snarled.

Jake reached out and grabbed the reins, pulling the Appaloosa to a stop. “About whatever it is that's eating your guts out, little brother. And don't tell me to mind my own business. My family is my business. Like it or not, you're family.”

Neal stared hard at his brother's hand. Jake let go of his reins and sat back. “I'm not saying you haven't had cause to act like a bear with a sore head, but we are all wondering when it's going to stop.”

Neal looked up and found his brother watching him intently. “Did you ever wish you could go back in time? I do. I wish I could go back and change the one thing that screwed up my life.”

“You could have gotten hurt on any bull you rode in the past ten years.”

Neal touched the black patch on his face. “I'm not talking about this. I'm talking about Robyn.”

He nudged his horse into a walk, and Jake's mount fell into step alongside. “Mom asked me this morning why Robyn left me, and I told her I didn't know. She asked me why I didn't go after her and demand an explanation. The truth is I was ashamed.”

“Ashamed? Of what?”

“You don't know what it's like on the rodeo circuit. There are women who idolize you, trail after you, beg and scheme to sleep with you. They don't care who you are. All they see is that you ride bulls. They think that must make you fantastic in bed. I tell you, it's hard to resist.”

“I imagine it would be,” Jake said quietly. “Is that what happened?”

“I had been on the circuit for a year before Robyn joined me. She was like a breath of fresh air from home. She knew me. She cared about me. Me. Not some fantasy. We had a good thing together, but I was too young or maybe just too stupid to realize how much I loved her. She'd always been part of my life. I took it for granted she always would be.”

Neal stared into the distance. The rolling hills shimmered and wavered, an illusion created by heat waves rising from the prairie in the late afternoon. It was just as hard for him to bring into focus what had gone wrong between Robyn and him.

“After our first year together, she started talking about quitting the circuit, settling down and having a family. Hell, I wasn't ready to settle down. I was moving up in the standings, and I didn't want anything to get in my way.”

“Did she know how you felt?”

“Sure she did. We had plenty of fights about it. She wanted me to give up bull riding. For me, that meant giving up my dream. I wasn't willing to quit.”

“So you split up because you both wanted different things out of life?”

“I tried to believe that. We'd hit a rough spot in our relationship. It seemed like we were always fighting about something. She wanted to get married. Everyone was expecting us to—her parents, our parents, my friends. I felt like I had a noose tightening around my neck.”

“I thought you wanted to marry her.”

“I suppose I did, but just the thought of being responsible for a family was enough to blow my mind. You know how I am. You've always been the responsible one, and I've—”

“Always been the wild one,” Jake finished for him.

“Yeah, and damned good at it. Dad used to say responsibility stuck to you like glue and rolled off me like rain off a tin roof.”

Jake shook his head. “Dad was hard on you, but it was because the two of you were so alike. He didn't want you to make the same mistakes he made.”

Their father had been on the pro rodeo circuit during their early childhood. When he'd come home to ranch for good, he did everything he could to discourage Neal from following in his footsteps. His disapproval only spurred Neal's drive to become the better rider. He became determined to outdo his father's record. Win more. Earn more. Bring home the world-championship buckle that had eluded his father. Then his father would have to take notice. Only it hadn't happened that way. His father had passed away before Neal could throw his success in his face.

“Nothing I did was ever good enough for our old man.”

“Neal, that's not true.”

“That's how I remember it.”

“We'll agree to disagree on the topic, but aren't you changing the subject? I thought we were talking about you and Robyn.”

Jake was right. Jake was always right. Neal drew a deep breath and blew it out. “I'm not sure how things got so messed up between us. Money was tight. The camper we lived in was too old and too small. Being on the road constantly was a grind. I do know I didn't help matters. I started staying out late with the boys instead of going home. It gave her one more thing to harp at me about.”

Neal paused. It was hard to admit he had been in the wrong, especially to Jake. How could he tell his big brother what a jerk he'd been?

“There has to be more to it than that,” Jake coaxed.

Neal nodded. “Yeah, there was. One night I went drinking with a buddy of mine, Ned Owens. We stayed out until the bars closed, and Ned got totally wasted. He passed out, and I drove him back to his trailer. His wife was waiting up. She said to let him sleep it off out in the car. She invited me in for a nightcap.”

“You went?”

“I wasn't in any hurry to get the tongue-lashing I knew Robyn was going to give me, so I said yes. One thing led to another, and we ended up having sex on her sofa.”

He glanced at Jake to gauge his reaction. His expression was noncommittal.

Neal bowed his head. “Jeez, even now I can't believe I had sex with my friend's wife while he was passed out in my car. I haven't lived the life of a saint, but that was the lowest thing I've ever done.”

“I see,” Jake said slowly. “It sounds to me like she was a willing participant.”

“Oh, yeah, she was very willing. For weeks, Meredith made my life miserable trying for a repeat performance. I told her as nicely as I could that it had been a mistake. She didn't want to hear it. I found out she's the one who told Robyn about us.”

“You know what they say about a woman scorned. Old sayings hang around for a reason.”

“So I've noticed. That night, I crawled back to our trailer like a whipped dog. I felt like scum. Hell, I was scum. Robyn was asleep. I got into bed, trying not to wake her. She rolled over and slid her arm across my chest. She was so innocent, so sweet.”

The shame of that night still burned in his chest. “Robyn was more than the girl I was living with. She was my friend, my best friend, and I betrayed her. For what? I realized that night how much I loved Robyn.”

“So you told her what happened?”

Neal almost laughed. “Are you kidding? I didn't have the kind of courage it took to tell the woman I loved that I had made the biggest mistake of my life.”

He shook his head. “I tried to pretend nothing had happened. I thought she'd never find out. A few days later, Robyn got the call that her father had had a stroke and she flew home. I waited for her to come back, to call or something, but she didn't. After a few weeks, I realized it was over. I got exactly what I deserved.”

“So you let her go?”

“Yeah. When I heard she got married soon after, I was actually glad. Somehow it made what I had done seem like less of a betrayal if she hadn't really loved me. I honestly wanted her to be happy. I knew I wasn't the man for the job.”

“I take it you learned today that she found out about your indiscretion?”

“Yes.” He'd learned that and a whole lot more. He had a son. It was hard to get his head around that bit of information.

“Okay, answer me one question. Are you still in love with her?”

“I don't know. Maybe.”

“Fair enough, little brother. What are you going to do about it?”

CHAPTER SEVEN

N
EAL
SHOT
J
AKE
a puzzled look. “What do you mean what do I intend to do about it? What can I do?”

“I'm asking if you intend to tell her you were a fool and that you still love her.”

If only that would be enough. “Get real. You saw how it was. She hates my guts.”

They rode in silence for a while, and then Jake said, “You know, I don't think she does.”

Neal looked at him sharply. “What makes you say that?”

“Actions speak louder than words. She drove Mom to Kansas City the night you were hurt. She stayed with you until you were out of danger. Today, she grabbed a horse and rode out to find you before anyone else did. Call me crazy, but that doesn't sound like a woman who hates your guts. I think she still cares about you.”

“Maybe, but she doesn't trust me. How can I expect her to?”

“I don't know the answer to that one, but I expect it will involve a lot of groveling. Before you can gain her forgiveness, Neal, you are going to have to forgive yourself.”

Neal mulled over his brother's words as they rode. He'd never forgiven himself for that one mistake a foolish and much younger man had made. Maybe it was time to let that go.

They topped a low rise and rode past a large herd of cattle. The steers raised their heads to watch them. Two red Herefords turned and trotted away. The rest of the herd moved to follow them. Neal found himself studying them carefully, looking for signs of illness or injury, and he smiled. Once a cowhand, always a cowhand.

But it felt good to be out riding the range. He'd missed this, too, this feeling of belonging to the wide earth, of being part of something bigger than himself.

He reined to a stop and called to Jake. “That small, black bald-faced calf is limping on his right front leg.”

“I see him.” Jake reached down and pulled loose his lariat. “Do you feel like earning your keep, little brother?” he asked, shaking out a loop.

Neal hesitated. “Jake, I don't know....”

“What? You afraid you might miss?”

“Yeah,” he managed to croak, although it almost killed him to admit it. There were a lot of things he couldn't do.

Jake reached over, tugged Neal's rope free and slapped the coils against Neal's chest. “Hell, when you had two good eyes you missed most of the time. I can rope better than you with both eyes closed. Head or heels?”

Neal's tension eased, and he gave his brother a look of gratitude. He took the rope and began to shake out a loop. “Okay, hotshot, you take the heels.”

Jake chuckled. “You want the head because it's a bigger target.”

Neal nudged the Appaloosa toward the herd. “I'm being easy on you. I've seen you rope. This way all you have to do is put your loop on the ground and let him step in it.”

“I've got five bucks that says the only thing you'll get a rope around is your horse's ears.”

“Big brother, you're on.”

They rode into the herd and cut the limping steer away from the others. It took three tries before Neal's loop fell over the calf's head, and he felt like shouting when it finally landed. Jake threw his rope on the back legs and they stretched the calf until it fell onto its side.

Both cow ponies knew what to do, and they kept the ropes taut as Neal dismounted and moved down the rope to the bawling animal. He saw that a small strand of broken wire had become wrapped around the hoof. He carefully worked the rusted piece loose.

The men freed the steer and coiled their ropes as they watched him run after the rest of the herd. Neal knew he was grinning like an idiot, but he didn't care. He patted the horse's neck. “This is a nice cow pony you've got here.”

“He's the start of an Appaloosa line that I want to breed. Good job with the rope, by the way. I guess this proves you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” Jake said quietly.

Neal shot a look at his brother's smiling face and his own grin faded. Anything he wanted? No, roping a calf was a far cry from riding a bull. His stomach lurched at the thought of lowering himself into a chute again.

He forced the fear back down inside and tried to laugh it off. “Hell, I thought it proved I'll do anything for money. You owe me five bucks.”

“What?”

“Five bucks. Pay up.”

“It took you a dozen tries. The rope fell on him by accident.”

“Five bucks.” Neal held out his hand.

“It wasn't a real bet. We didn't shake on it.”

“Five bucks now, and stop trying to weasel out of it,” Neal said as he mounted his horse. Their banter continued as they rode home, but Neal's thoughts continually returned to Robyn and her stunning announcement.

He was a father. To a kid he'd never met.

If he had come after Robyn when she'd left, what would their lives be like now? She wasn't indifferent to him. Her kisses proved that. There was just as much sizzle as always between them, but good sex hadn't been enough to keep their relationship together. That took trust.

He had destroyed that trust before he'd realized what they had together, what she meant to him.

The old saying “you don't know what you've got till it's gone” should be tattooed on his forehead.

The question now was, did he want to rekindle a romance with her? Was it even possible? Any relationship would have to include her son. Was he ready for that?

Not wanting kids was a whole lot different than finding out he already had one. If nothing else, Robyn owed him the chance to get to know his son.

She didn't trust him. He got that part of it. He was actually surprised that she had told him the truth. He could blow her big secret, but he wouldn't. Proving to her that she could trust him would be tough. Was it worth the effort?

He thought again of the way she had felt in his arms today. She made him feel like a whole man. Like the man he used to be. Hell, yes. She was worth the effort. But where did he start?

* * *

“T
HANKS
, M
R
. M
YERS
,”
Robyn called over her shoulder as she stepped out of the grocery store. She turned around and bumped into a broad, denim-clad chest. “Oh, excuse me.”

She looked up into Neal's tan face. Her traitorous heart lurched into double-time. It had been a week since that day at the spring, and his face had been haunting her dreams every night.

Willing her voice to stay steady, she said, “Oh, it's you.” She tried to shoulder past him, but he stopped her by grabbing one of the overflowing grocery bags she carried.

“Let me help you with that.” He pulled the bag out of her arm.

“I can manage,” she protested.

“No trouble.” He walked to her truck and stood beside it. She had no choice but to follow him. She opened the pickup door and he set the bag on the seat. He took the second bag from her and set it beside the first. He turned and faced her, and he didn't move out of her way.

Unwilling to meet his gaze, she muttered, “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.” He still didn't move.

“I need to get going. I'm in a hurry.” She couldn't believe how much she wanted to stay. Why couldn't he leave her alone?

“Seems like you're always in a hurry these days. Can't return my calls, can't make time to see me.”

“That's because I'm busy. Please move.”

“No.”

She glared at him then. “What do you want?”

“I'm not going anywhere until I tell you how sorry I am.”

She held up one hand. “Please, I don't want to hear this.”

“Well, too bad, because I need to say it.”

After pulling off his hat, he ran his fingers through his hair and then gripped the brim of his hat with both hands. “I never meant to hurt you, but I did. I'm so sorry. I was a fool. There isn't any excuse for what I did. Maybe you thought I didn't come after you because I didn't want you anymore. That wasn't true. I didn't come after you because I knew you deserved a better man than I was.”

There was so much pain on his face. She didn't want to forgive him, but she wavered, wanting to salvage something of their past. They'd shared something incredibly special once. “Thank you for being honest.”

“You're welcome. You deserve someone who can give you the life you want. You're a fine and beautiful woman, Tweety. Don't let anyone tell you different.”

He glanced from the hat he was turning slowly in his hands to her face. “I know you don't want me in the picture, but it doesn't feel right knowing I have a son and doing nothing for him. I've set up a trust that he will get access to when he turns twenty-one. There will be money to pay for college, or whatever. No strings attached.”

“I can't let you do that.”

“Too bad. It's done.”

“Then on his behalf, I thank you.”

“No thanks needed. Robyn, I'd really like to meet him. I'd like to get to know him.”

She shook her head. Why had she opened her foolish mouth in the first place? “No.”

“Just meet him, nothing else. You said it yourself our families are friends and neighbors. I'm bound to run into him someday.”

“Someday, but not now.” Not when her emotions were so raw. Not when she was questioning the wisdom of what she had done.

“All right. I just wanted you to know I'm sorry for what I did to you. More than anything else, I have missed your friendship. Maybe someday we can be friends again.”

He settled his hat on his head, touched the brim in a brief salute and then walked away without waiting for her reply.

When he was out of sight, she climbed slowly into her truck. She sat and stared at the wedding band on her left hand where it rested on the steering wheel. The ring was a symbol of a promise she had made in haste to a young man who was dying. A promise made for all the wrong reasons, and one she had regretted every single day since she had given it.

She dropped her head into her hands in misery and whispered, “I miss your friendship, too, Neal. How did we end up like this?”

After a moment, she raised her head and stared at the gold band once more. “I made a promise, and I have to keep it.”

There was no use wondering how things would have turned out if she had made a different choice. She had to live with what she had done. With a tired sigh, she put the truck in gear and started for home.

Seeing Neal had stirred up feelings she wasn't ready to face. Stepping on the gas, she tried to get ahead of her confusion. She was over him.

The town's only stoplight turned red in front of her. She slammed on the brakes just in time. An elderly woman, waiting to cross the street with her dog, shot Robyn a sour look. Robyn raised a hand in apology.

Okay, so she wasn't over Neal. Now what?

Their relationship had ended in limbo, with no clear closure for either of them. It was past time to put that chapter of her life away for good. If she accepted that her attraction to him was a leftover part of that chapter, she could move on.

Only, how?

“Oh, Colin, I wish you were here to help me.” They had met in the coffee shop at the hospital where her father had been a patient. Colin's kindness and gentle nature had allowed Robyn to reveal all that she was going through in those first weeks after she'd left Neal. Colin's unconditional support had allowed her to face a future without Neal. It was only later that she'd learned how ill Colin was.

She sat up straight. Her grip on the steering wheel tightened. Colin was gone, but the people he'd wanted so badly to help weren't. She would call his parents and ask them to come for an extended visit. With Colin's parents at the ranch, she would have a reminder every waking minute of the promise she had made and the reason for it. If they could stay until Neal was gone, that was all she needed.

Two days later, Robyn was nailing a new picket on the fence to replace a broken one when a familiar black Lexus pulled up in front of the two-story stone-and-timber ranch house. Her father-in-law flashed a dazzling smile and waved as he stepped out of the car.

Tall and handsome still, Edward Morgan wore his seventy-odd years with distinction. His face was lined with a gentle humor that continually amazed her. Colin had been so much like him. Life had not been kind to Edward, yet somehow he managed to find the strength to bear it. How could she do less?

“Edward, how wonderful to see you.” She reached his side and gave him a big hug.

He planted a kiss on her cheek. “I've been missing my favorite daughter-in-law. Why didn't we think of this sooner?”

Guilt blossomed in her. Since Neal had dropped back into her life, she couldn't seem to think of anything, or anyone, else. “I'm sorry. There has been so much to do since we decided to sell the ranch. I've barely had a moment to myself. We're going to have the auction in three weeks.”

“I can't believe you want us to stay when you're so busy. Are you sure we won't be in the way?”

“Oh, not at all. You know you're always welcome here. I know how much you love the country. I wanted you to enjoy this place one last time. Before it's gone for good.”

“Edward? Edward, where are you?” a halting and worried voice called from inside the car.

“I'm right here, dear.” Edward removed a wheelchair from the back of the car and unfolded it. After opening the passenger side door, he bent and lifted his tiny, fragile wife from the front seat.

Sorrow touched Robyn's heart as she watched Edward gently place Clara in the wheelchair. The once vivacious woman seemed to fade more each time Robyn saw her. Her white hair was drawn back into an elegant chignon. She was as neat as a pin in a simple blue dress with a wide white collar and full skirt, but her blue eyes that had once sparkled and snapped with humor and wit had become dull and lifeless.

BOOK: Harlequin Superromance January 2014 - Bundle 2 of 2: A Ranch for His Family\Cowgirl in High Heels\A Man to Believe In
10.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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