“This may be your last chance.”
Shannon Johnson heard the ragged voice and barely recognized it as her own. She was closer to the edge than she wanted to admit. But at least she had a chance to keep from completely going over. She owed that to a man who understood her better than her family or James Harper, the man who wanted to marry her.
“Thanks, Wade,” she whispered, her throat tight with unshed tears. She had cried enough.
Hands gripped at her sides, she looked out over the flower- strewn meadow, heard the rushing water of a stream edged by towering cypress two hundred feet away, then brought her gaze back to the weathered log cabin to her left. Arthur Ferguson, Wade’s lawyer, had told her the cabin was habitable. The old shack looked as if any strong wind would blow it down. She had heard Texas people were rugged, but she thought this was going a bit far. Her prominent family in St. Louis would be horrified to think she contemplated, even for a moment, the idea of actually living in such a desolate place. But then, she had horrified her parents a lot.
Only one person in her family had always understood her and now he was gone.
Unclenching her hands with effort, Shannon turned to get a flashlight from the glove compartment of her car. She wanted to inspect the cabin. Gripping the flashlight, she refused to think it was too late to salvage her life and her career.
But she hadn’t wanted to come. That, too, had been forced on her. Two Code Blues and the subsequent loss of both patients in the ICCU unit where she was head nurse had sent her to the nursing lounge in tears. A job she once defied her parents to train for, she now dreaded.
“Go home, Shannon.”
Shannon flinched, her eyes snapping shut as she remembered the gentle but firm words of the nursing supervisor who had found her in the lounge fighting tears and an aching emptiness. The underlying reason for the directive— her increasing inability to function effectively since the death of her maternal grandfather from cancer three months previously— had sent her to Texas.
Shannon had seen death many times in her six years of nursing, but it had never taken someone so close to her. Although the specialists had given her grandfather only six months to live after his diagnosis, she had known doctors to be wrong and had desperately clung to that belief. She wasn’t prepared for the loss or the overwhelming sense that she, as a medical professional, had failed him.
Care of critical patients only intensified her emotional upheaval. Yet, somehow she knew moving to a less stressful unit wouldn’t help. Her grandfather’s death had taken its toll. She had lost her professional objectivity. She took things too personally and was preoccupied with her own loss. She wasn’t helping those entrusted to her by staying. They deserved and needed the full focus of their caregiver and she could no longer give it to them.
Losing Samuel J. Rhodes had left her floundering and unsure of herself. The worst part was not knowing if she was grieving for him or for herself. She had lost her champion, her confidant, her ally.
Shannon looked at the rough exterior of the cabin and shook her head. “You and I both have seen better days,” she muttered.
Without further hesitation she walked to the cabin, opened the stubborn squeaking door, then let the flashlight pierce the dim interior. It was spartan and filthy. A broken, built- in mattressless bed sat on the far side of the room.
Ten feet away an ancient- looking potbellied black stove squatted near a wood- filled apple crate. The only other piece of furniture was an overturned, three- legged wooden chair. Spider webs gleamed in the light; a wasp flew past her. It would require a lot of hard cleaning to make the place livable.
Weariness settled in. Another hope turned to bitter regret. No matter how foolish Wade had sounded, she had prayed that the healing power of his meadow would help her, as he had predicted. She badly needed to feel life instead of the anger and misery she couldn’t shake.
She had planned on staying in the cabin and getting her life together again. Now she realized that was no longer possible.
The adrenaline pushing her to make the twelve- hour drive from St. Louis had evaporated. Returning to the car, she opened the trunk and pulled out the quilt given to her by Granddaddy Rhodes. It was the first thing she had grabbed when she decided to come to Jackson Falls. The lovingly hand- stitched squares of cloth was her security blanket. It was always to her grandfather that Shannon had turned when she needed reassurance and guidance.
As the shy, youngest child with two brothers who were as assertive and as brilliant as their parents, she had turned to her grandfather a lot. He had never let her down. Now he was gone and she was lost.
Spreading the quilt beneath the shade of a sprawling oak tree, she laid down for the first time in over thirty- six hours. A trail of blue clouds sailed past under the guidance of the gentle April wind. Hands pillowed beneath her head, she closed her eyes. Immediately, sleep claimed her.
Matt Taggart couldn’t believe a stranger was asleep in his meadow.
Years of checking the Circle T’s range had revealed some odd things, but nothing like the scene before him. The ranch was clearly posted, and people in the area knew he didn’t make exceptions.
Puzzled by the woman’s daring, he let his horse’s reins trail loosely between his fingers and leaned over the saddle horn to study his uninvited guest.
Daniel’s film crew from Denver wasn’t due for another two weeks, so it wasn’t likely she was with them. Besides, the Cadillac convertible parked by the cabin had Missouri license plates.
A frown marched across Matt’s dark- brown face as his gaze swept from the sports car to the woman with skin the color of toffee. Her long legs were shapely and elegant in khaki shorts. Her hips nicely rounded. From the way her breasts pushed against her thin yellow T-shirt, he suspected they would more than amply fill a man’s palm.
His hand tightened on the reins. Brazos brought his sleek head up and stepped sideways. A light touch of a booted heel settled the quarter horse. The corners of Matt’s mouth tilted in wry amusement at his quick response to the woman. Must be past time for him to head to Kerrville for some R&R.
Dismounting, he dropped the reins to the ground. Quiet, measured strides quickly carried him to the sleeping woman. Up close, he saw the dark smudges beneath her eyes that the crescent shadow of her lush lashes couldn’t hide. He knew those signs. She must have been burning the candle at both ends. Before he quit the rodeo circuit a few years back, he had burned the ends and tried the middle once or twice.
She appeared defenseless, almost fragile, lying there with her bare lips slightly parted, her thick mane of reddish-brown hair swirling in the afternoon breeze.
Studying her from another angle, he tried to see if he recognized her. Her face was exquisite with its high cheekbones hinting at a Native American ancestor somewhere in the family background. Her bow- shaped mouth begged to be kissed. She had a nice nose and her chin had just enough thrust to make it interesting.
He was certain he had never seen this woman before. She wasn’t the type a man easily forgot . . . if at all.
Maybe she was the new waitress Moses had mentioned hiring for the Longhorn Restaurant and Bar. In the small ranch town of ten thousand, Moses Dalton owned one of the few businesses that kept growing and hiring.
If she was staying in town that meant she was off limits to him. He had made it a strict policy to steer clear of the local women. He wasn’t the staying kind and he didn’t want any problems when he moved on. As long as he kept it on the road, he didn’t have to worry about causing bad feelings between him and his neighbors and friends or, worse yet, someone trying to push him to the altar.
Since this woman apparently felt enough at ease to fall asleep on his property, it seemed one of his hired hands didn’t share Matt’s philosophy on local women. Only three of the full- time men were single, but in today’s society marriage didn’t necessarily mean fidelity. It hadn’t meant fidelity to Matt’s ex- wife. Piercing anger no longer came with that knowledge, just an emptiness he didn’t try to fill.
His questioning gaze again settled on the classic lines of the sleeping woman’s face. He wondered which one of his men thought he had gotten lucky. Experience had taught him beautiful women weren’t known for their staying power. For himself, he was too busy trying to make the
ranch support itself to cater to a woman’s whims no matter how tempting the outer wrapping.
“Hey, lady. Your date’s not coming,” Matt said. She didn’t move, didn’t blink. The tips of his fingers nudged the sole of her expensive- looking sandal. No reaction. “Lady, wake up!”
Shannon sat bolt upright at the masculine command. Heavy- lidded eyes widened as they traveled up the long, muscular jeans- clad legs of a powerfully built man. Large hands were braced on a narrow waist. A partially unbuttoned chambray shirt allowed a tempting peek at an impossibly broad chest.
She blinked. No man’s chest could be that wide. No man could have a voice that rumbled like distant thunder nor possess velvety black eyes that made her skin tingle. Deciding she was imagining things, Shannon closed her eyes to lie back down on her quilt- covered bed of bluebonnets and buttercups.
“Oh no you don’t, lady.”
Strong, callused hands circled her upper arms and set her on her feet. The black eyes were even more devastating closer, just like the man. “You’re real.”
The tall, handsome man laughed, a husky sound that vibrated down her spine. “Too bad you won’t be able to find out how real.”
His sensual mouth quirked beneath his jet- black mustache. “A private joke.”
“Oh?” Shannon said, somehow perfectly content to let him maintain his gentle hold on her arms. He had the most beautiful eyes. All dark and piercing.
“If you keep staring at me like that, I might forget you’re off limits,” he said, his thumb stroking her skin as his voice stroked her body.
“Off limits?” she repeated, clearly puzzled.
His face hardened. “Forgot the man you came to see already?”
Her confusion increasing with each second, she frowned. “I don’t—”
“Save it, lady, I’m not interested. I know it’s a long ways from town but Jay and Elliott are busy branding. Cleve has more sense and my other hands are married. So you wasted a trip and I don’t like trespassers on my land.”
Understanding slowly sank into Shannon’s tired brain. “You must be Wade Taggart’s nephew, Matt. I’m Shannon Johnson.” Both her smile and her hand were ignored.
“Another what?” she asked.
“Another one of Wade’s charity cases,” Matt answered caustically.
Her chin went up. “I am not.”
Heavy brows arched. “Lady, you mean to tell me you didn’t come here expecting something from Wade?”
She flushed guiltily. “Yes, but if I could just expl—”
“Save it, lady,” he interrupted sharply. “Wade died four months ago, and I have no intention of being duped the way he was by every pretty face with a sad story.”
Hardcase. The nickname flashed into her mind. During Wade’s hospitalization at Memorial Hospital in St. Louis he once told her that was the name some people called his nephew and partner. They didn’t think he had any softness in him.
But Shannon had felt the gentleness of his touch, heard the warmth of his laughter. And certainly the nurses at Memorial wouldn’t have been in such a continued frenzy to go out with the Walking Hunk, as they secretly called Matt, if he didn’t possess some good qualities. His devastatingly handsome face and strong, lithe, perfect body would only take him so far.
“You have two minutes to get off my land,” Matt interrupted.
“If you would—”
“You’re wasting time.”
“You’re the one wasting time,” Shannon said in a rush. Perhaps she had overestimated the intelligence of the women at Memorial. “This is my land.”
Surprise flashed across his dark features, then his face hardened into ruthlessness. “What ever scam you’re trying to run won’t work on me.”
“Mr. Taggart, if you’ll just—”
“Lady, you either put your cute little behind back in your car under your own power or I’ll do it for you.”
Realizing Matt wasn’t going to listen to anything she said, Shannon marched back to her car. So much for hoping they could be friends. She reached through the open window for her purse and withdrew a crumpled white envelope. “I think you better read this.”
“Call me lady in that tone once again and I’ll do something we’ll both be sorry for.” He didn’t look the least bit intimidated. Shannon sighed. There probably weren’t many things that bothered a man with shoulders as wide as a door. “Please just read the letter.”
Taking the envelope, Matt scanned the bold, black letterhead of Ferguson & Ferguson. His body tautened. Blunt- tipped fingers removed the paper inside. Midway down the page a heated expletive singed the air. Razorsharp eyes stabbed into her.
“You won’t get away with this. I’ll fight you through every court in the country.”
“I hope not, Mr. Taggart. Wade wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“How in the hell do you know what Wade would have wanted?” he challenged.
Shannon debated only a few moments before she decided to face the issue head on. “I was his nurse when he was hospitalized in St. Louis almost four years ago. We became friends and kept in touch after he was discharged.”
Matt’s perusal moved with deliberate slowness from her windblown hair down to her toenails polished Racy Red, then lifted to linger for a heart- stopping moment on her breasts before continuing to her eyes. “I don’t remember him mentioning you while he was there.”
Shannon refused to let his bold stare intimidate her no matter how her heart rate sped up. “I worked the eleven-to-seven shift.”
A sardonic smile twisted the sensual fullness of Matt’s mouth. “I bet that’s not all you did, honey.”
“Lady” sounded like an endearment compared to the way Matt sneered “honey.”
“Now you’ve insulted me and your uncle. Wade was a fine man and you have no reason to talk that way about either of us.”
“Being ‘fine’ doesn’t mean he couldn’t be fooled by a woman.”
“No doubt not a failing you share,” Shannon countered.
He ignored her taunt. “Why did you wait so long? That letter was dated a week after Wade’s death.”
Shannon looked away from his disturbing gaze and tried to speak around the sudden lump forming in her throat. “P-personal business kept me away.”
She faced him. “Why are you being so rude?”
Hands on his hips, he glared down at her. “You have the gall to ask me that when you sashay in here and try to take the best grazing section of the ranch? The only one with year- round water? The original homestead site?”
“I had no idea what the land looked like until today. Of course, Mr. Ferguson sent me information on the property, but I don’t know anything about ranching. I simply followed his directions and turned off on the first road to the left after entering the gate.” She tried to offer a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t be in your way for long. Just act like I’m not here.”
“Not likely, lady.” He leaned down to within an inch of her face, blocking out everything except his dark look of fury. “This land has been in the Taggart family for four generations. I’ll fight you through court and hell for what’s mine.”
She took a hasty step backward. “I already have this land, and if the lawyer’s office hadn’t been closed because it’s Sunday the final papers would have already been signed.”
Some of the tension left Matt’s face and his shoulders. “Then this farce hasn’t been finalized. If it had, though, you’d be landlocked.”
Shannon jerked her letter from his hand. She could almost see the wheels turning in Matt’s devilish mind. “Only until I tore down the fence bordering the Farm- to-Market Road.”
Matt looked thunderstruck. “You do and you’ll chase every horse and cow that gets out!”
A tear rolled down Shannon’s smooth brown cheek. Everything was going wrong. She hated arguing, she hated crying just as much. Tears implied a lack of control that, until the loss of her grandfather, she had prided herself on maintaining no matter what.
The faster she wiped at the tears, the faster they flowed. Her stomach growled. Watery eyes flew up to meet Matt’s, and she turned away in embarrassment. How could her own body betray her like this? Easy. Working sixteen-hour days for weeks, sleeping badly, and eating worse would do it.
“Lady, are you all right?”
“I’m just dandy,” Shannon sniffed. “Don’t I look dandy?”
No, you don’t Matt wanted to say, but he didn’t think that would help matters. Tears were the oldest trick in the book used by women, yet somehow his usual immunity wasn’t working.
Maybe because she looked so lost. Maybe because ever since his older brother Kane had married Victoria Chandler, Matt had to grudgingly admit that perhaps, just perhaps, there were a few good women left on earth.
Probably it was more the memory of Shannon Johnson asleep in the meadow looking beautiful and innocent. He stiffened. That kind of thinking wasn’t going to get his land back. The Circle T was going to remain intact and his alone.
“Look, we need to talk. Where are you staying?”
Shannon couldn’t suppress a shudder as she nodded toward the cabin. “I had planned on stay—”
“What!” Matt cried, cutting her off. “No one has slept in there for years. You’re liable to wake up kissing a rattler.”
Shannon’s head snapped up and she stared at the cabin. “I . . . I was in there and I didn’t see anything.”
“You probably wouldn’t until to night.” She swayed on her feet. His hand shot out to steady her.
“Mr. Ferguson said it was habitable,” she said softly.
Matt snorted. “After Octavia and a couple of the hands tackled it all day.”
“I see. Well that will change now that I’m here.” Withdrawing her arm, she stepped away and instantly regretted the loss of the warmth and strength of his large callused hand.
For a split second Matt admired her show of courage and wanted to wipe the frightened look from her sad brown eyes almost as much as he wanted to keep feeling her silken skin. Skin that probably tasted as rich and sweet as its toffee color. He scowled. He must have been out in the sun too long. This woman wanted his heritage!
A beeping sound shattered the air. Matt snatched the pager from his belt and read the phone number. “It’s almost six. Meet me at the ranch house in an hour so we can talk.”
Her stomach growled again. Embarrassment overrode caution. Perhaps he wouldn’t seem so overbearing after a meal. “I’ll be there.”
“Just follow the main road you turned in on and it will take you to the ranch house.” The brim of his black Stetson dipped, then he turned away. With every step Matt berated his chivalrous uncle for putting him in a position of going up against a woman who looked as if she was on her last leg. Grabbing the dangling reins of his sorrel stallion, he mounted. Shannon was still staring at the cabin, the letter clutched in her hand.
Matt’s eyes turned flint hard. She might be on her last leg, but like a lot of women, Miss Shannon Johnson still had dollar signs before her eyes and in her heart.
Matt’s booted heel rapped loudly on the wide wooden front porch of the two- story ranch house. Opening the heavily carved door, he went directly to his office and dialed Arthur Ferguson’s home phone number. The soft voice of Arthur’s wife greeted him on a recording. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he left an urgent message for the lawyer to call him, then dialed the number on the pager.
He and rancher Adam Gordon had talked back and forth so much in the past months that Matt knew the number by heart. The older rancher answered the phone on the second ring.
“Hello, Adam.” Matt tried to keep the eagerness out of his voice. “I hope your call means I can buy Sir Galahad.”
Matt winced every time he said the name, but considering the bull’s registered bloodline, it was his due.
“I didn’t call to talk business, son.”
Matt winced again. Adam had started calling him “son” ever since his daughter Vivian had made her romantic interest in Matt clear. She was a nice kid, but she was just that, a kid. “Oh.”
“The wife has decided to give a little party to celebrate Vivian’s graduation from junior college. We want you to come.”
Matt’s grip on the phone tightened. He needed that bull to improve his stock’s bloodline but he wasn’t going to dance a tune to Vivian’s fiddle to get it. “It’s hard to believe she’s graduating already. Seems I still remember her in plaits.”
“Vivian is a woman full grown and knows what she wants.”
“I’m sure she does,” Matt said, then added to himself, but it’s not going to be me. “Adam, I hate to push you, but I need a decision on that bull. Getting closer to the time I have to start breeding.”
“If Vivian lets us, we’ll see if we have time to talk this coming Saturday night. She’s so excited and looking forward to seeing you. I don’t mind telling you that my little girl has taken quite an interest in you.”
Matt’s patience reached its limit. “Adam, we’ve been friends for years, so I’ll be up front with you. You know I don’t date the local women and, more important, you know why. With my reputation, would you and Peggy really be comfortable with me seeing your daughter?”
Silence stretched across the line for several seconds, then, “A man can change.”
“Only if he wants to. If the sale of the bull hinges on my taking Vivian out, I’m withdrawing my offer.”
“Now hold on, Matt.” Outrage roughened Adam’s voice. “You can’t think I’d stoop to something that low.”
“Ordinarily no, but I think you’d do anything to please
Vivian and keep your wife happy,” Matt said bluntly. “While I admire you for loving your family, I’m disappointed in you as a friend. You have until tomorrow to give me a decision on the bull or I’ll look someplace else.”
“And I won’t be able to make it Saturday.” Matt dropped the receiver back into its base, then plopped in the chair behind his desk. He desperately needed that bull, but he wasn’t going to be used or use a young woman’s infatuation and her father’s blind love to get the animal.
Adam was a good man, but his only daughter had always been able to wrap him around her little finger. He would bust a gut trying to get Vivian what ever she wanted. All she had to do was point. Apparently, she had pointed at Matt.
He really didn’t think the girl wanted him. Since his uncle’s death, Matt’s appeal to the women in the area had increased a hundredfold. He had received more invitations in the past four months than he had in the past four years.
Most of the women probably meant well, but he knew being sole owner of the Circle T, the largest ranch in the county, didn’t hurt.
But you aren’t the sole owner of the Circle T, Matt thought with a grimace. And the blame lay solely at the feet of his soft- hearted uncle.
Wade Taggart had been a robust man with an easygoing manner and a ready smile. A throwback to the bygone days when men protected women, pampered them. He was a sucker for their sob stories. Not even when Matt’s wife had turned his life into a nightmare had Wade said one word against her.
Women, in Wade’s opinion, were the weaker sex, and if they sometimes acted unladylike, it was their way of surviving. His belief had financed more than one woman out of trouble. No matter how much Matt tried to tell Wade the women were using him, he just smiled and did as he pleased.
Yet, never would Matt have thought Wade capable of giving away a section of their ranch. Wade’s ties to the land were as strong and as deep as Matt’s. It didn’t make sense.
Matt’s father, Bill, and his brother Wade were Matt’s paternal grandparents’ only children. The ranch passed jointly to both brothers. Since Wade was the oldest, when Matt’s parents married and moved to Tyler, Texas, Wade stayed on the Circle T and kept the place going.
Ten years ago when Matt’s world turned into a living hell, it was to the ranch that he had come to heal. At the time he wasn’t fit to be around man nor beast. However, working the land had restored his sanity and given him back a reason for getting up in the morning. The week after
the birth of Kane’s twins, their father had signed over his share of the Circle T to Matt with Kane’s blessing.
Wade had been there. “When my time comes, the Circle T will all be yours.”
That was two years ago. What catastrophe in Shannon Johnson’s life could have been enough to change Wade’s mind? Try as Matt might want to dispute it, somehow he knew her claim was real.
Wade had gone to her rescue.
Matt pushed to his feet. Her story didn’t matter. She wasn’t getting his land. No woman was ever taking anything else from him again. He had made himself that promise the day his divorce was final, and in the years since, he had yet to break his oath.
But in order to fight Shannon, he had to learn more about her. Inviting her to dinner was the first step. He didn’t like subterfuge, but if he had to put on the charm to find out what she was up to, his conscience could take it.
Reaching into one of the desk drawers, Matt pulled out a paperback novel, then strode into the kitchen. He needed the house to himself. Pushing open the swinging door separating the den from the kitchen, he saw Octavia Ralston stirring something with a wooden spoon in an old-fashioned crock bowl. He knew what ever she was making would be mouth- watering.
After burying two husbands, raising six children, and helping to care for twenty grandchildren, Octavia had always said mothering, cooking, and cleaning came naturally.
Her gray hair was scraped back from her plump ebony- hued face that was free of makeup, leaving it as open as the owner. At least Matt had thought so until a few days ago.
“Octavia, I need you to leave the house for a couple of hours to night.”
“Why?” The house keeper and cook for the Taggart house hold for the past forty years didn’t pause as she dumped the soft bread dough onto a floured board.
“I’ve invited a woman over.”
Octavia’s speed in turning belied her sixty- odd years and her considerable bulk. “There’ll be none of that going on in this house.”
Matt returned her stare. “This is business. I’ve never asked a woman to the ranch. You’re the one always inviting them over.”
“It’s about time you remarried.” The house keeper grabbed the rolling pin.
“At least just stay in your room.”
“My TV is on the blink in my room and to night’s the conclusion of that miniseries.”
Matt set his teeth. Octavia seldom watched her color TV. She had carried on for weeks to him about the waste after her children had bought it for her for Valentine’s Day. She was just being stubborn.
“Strange. All this time I thought you were in your room reading books like these.” He pulled the paperback from behind his back.
Wide- eyed, she advanced on him. “Give me that.”
“Now, Octavia, don’t be so savage,” he said, eyeing the rolling pin in her hand. “Or did you get that from . . .” He paused and opened the book. “ ‘Serena, her black eyes glazed with passion, leaned into Jared’s hard—’.”
“That’s my property,” Octavia interrupted sharply.
“Where did you get it?”
“In the easy chair.” Black eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Imagine my surprise when I reached down between the arm of the chair and the cushion for the TV remote I dropped and found a love novel with your name inside.”
“Romance novel,” she corrected.
Matt grinned. “Pardon me. Romance novel.”
She held out her hand. “My book.”
“You can have it and I promise to keep quiet about your reading material if you’ll take the book and stay in your room to night.”
“Never thought you’d hurt a woman of my years.”
Matt grunted. “This is the boy you took a broomstick to when I was sixteen, saying you wanted to even the odds.”
Octavia smiled, showing strong white teeth. “It did, too.” She took the paperback and pocketed it in her apron.
“You win this time, but there’s still two or three women I haven’t invited back after church for Sunday dinner.”
“And while they’re here, perhaps they’d like to see what you do when you close your door.”
“You’re a mean man, Matthew Evans Taggart.”
“It’s a mean world.”