Excerpt from Heart of a Cowboy
The horse in the corral reared up, jerking the rope from his wrangler’s grip. Standing next to the hood of her car watching the interplay, Jordan Masterson stiffened. The animal’s hooves plunged down toward the man. Barely missing him. She gasped. Even from a distance the flare of the animal’s nostrils indicated agitation. She glanced at her ten-year-old son as he climbed from her yellow Camaro.
Nicholas can’t ride. He could get hurt.
The horse’s whinny drew her attention to the corral again. The huge black animal backed up, lifting its head as it stared wide-eyed at the cowboy.
“Whoa, boy. Easy, Midnight.” The soothing cadence of the man’s deep, husky voice eased the mounting tension in Jordan as well as the horse.
The animal slowed its backward steps. Its dilated pupils contracted. The man moved in closer, all the while saying, “Easy, boy. You’re okay,” until the horse stopped. The man raised his hand inch by slow inch. Finally his fingers grazed the horse’s neck. He reached out and grasped the rope.
Something stirred deep in her memory. The cowboy’s back was to her, but Jordan noted the breadth of his shoulders, the narrow hips, the long legs, clad in dusty jeans and his worn brown boots. She ran her gaze up his well-built body to his nape where his sable hair curled against the collar of his white shirt.
“Mom, did you see that?”
“Yeah,” she whispered, more to herself than anyone.
The cowboy turned partially toward them, and Jordan drew in a deep breath and held it. His square jaw, his alert stance prodded a memory forward-one she wanted to forget. She zeroed in on his face, but his black cowboy hat shadowed most of his features until he lifted his head enough for her to see the firm set of his full lips, the tic in his jawline, the frown that graced his expression. Panic seized her, tightening its squeeze on her lungs. A panic that had nothing to do with the temperamental horse in the corral.
Her high school sweetheart. The man who broke her heart.
His sea-green gaze zoomed in on hers. Suddenly Jordan was whisked back eleven years to the last time she saw that scowl that now transformed his tanned features into a hardened countenance. Even from yards away the tension that poured off him blasted her.
Breath trapped, Jordan pivoted away, gripping the frame of the car door. “Nicholas, maybe you shouldn’t learn to ride right now.” She schooled her voice into a level tone while inside her heartbeat galloped like a runaway stallion.
“Ah, Mom, you promised I could when we moved here.”
“But…” I can’t do this. We can’t be around Zachary.
“I really want to ride.”
Her son’s intense stare drilled into her, reminding her yet again of the promise she’d made. One she needed to break.
“You said I should do something physical.”
Her own reasoning was going to come back and bite her. Nicholas was a child who would stay buried in his books if she didn’t get him out of the house and doing some activities. He was ten but was more comfortable around adults. His genius-level IQ often made him the butt of other kids’ jokes. Something she had hoped would change when they’d moved back to Tallgrass. It hadn’t.
“Hon, let me ask around. I’m sure there are other places you can get some riding lessons.” Just not at this ranch. Not with this cowboy. Her son swiveled toward the corral and grinned at Zach-ary, who was striding toward them.
“Jordan, I didn’t realize you were back in town.”
I didn’t realize you were, either. “Yeah, I moved back a few weeks ago. When did you and your wife move back?”
“Wife? I’m not married.”
He looked from her to her son. “What can I do for you?”
Not married? But he had been engaged.
“Aunt Rachel said you give riding lessons out here.” Nicholas straightened his shoulders. “I want to learn to ride. Maybe be in a rodeo one day.”
Rodeo? Where had that come from? Jordan’s panic, centered on Zachary, suddenly shifted to her son. Participating in rodeos was dangerous.
Zachary pushed his hat back from his forehead. “Well, partner, the only lessons I give are for the kids in the Helping Hands Homeschooling group. Are you part of that?”
Nicholas threw a glance back at her. “Mom?”
A homeschooling group? Jordan heaved a sigh and slammed the car door, then rounded the front of her Camaro. “No, we aren’t. Sorry to bother you.” She had intended to grasp her son’s hand and get out of there as quickly as possible. Before any questions were asked. Why hadn’t her sister and mother told her Zachary was living in Tallgrass?
Nicholas stepped out of her reach and even closer to the fence that separated him from Zachary. “May I see some of the horses? I’ve never been on a ranch.” His grin grew to encompass his whole face. “I’ve read all about how a ranch works and how to train horses.” Zachary slid a glance toward her, his gaze boring into her for a full minute. Behind the hard glint a hundred questions lurked-ones she didn’t want to answer. Her own anger bubbled to the surface and shoved the panic down. He was the one who had gotten engaged so soon after their breakup.
Zachary wrenched his attention from Jordan. His face relaxed its harshness, and he actually smiled clear to the green depths of those eyes that had captured her interest when she’d been a junior in high school.
“Tell you what. I have three kids coming out to ride. They should be here soon. If it’s okay with your mother, you can join them this time.”
No, it isn’t okay. The words screamed through Jordan’s mind while her son swung around with that puppy-dog look that turned her to mush. “Mom, may I please?”
Only her son would ask and be grammatically correct. Zachary’s gaze fell on her, too, and she resisted the urge to squirm. In the end he was the one who had walked away from their relationship. And she wasn’t going to let him make her feel guilty.
Jordan tilted up her chin and looked Zachary square in the face. “That would be fine. I appreciate your making an exception this once. Shouldn’t you run it by your boss first, though?”
He lowered his hat to shield his eyes. “I own the Wild Bill Buffalo Ranch.”
His answer really didn’t surprise her since Zachary used to spend time at his uncle’s ranch in southern Oklahoma. Had he fulfilled his dream of being a bull rider on the rodeo circuit? What happened to the woman his mother said he was engaged to? There was so much she didn’t know about him now-purposefully.
“C’mon. I’ll get you hitched up with a horse and give you a few pointers before the others arrive.” Zachary moved a few steps to the gate of the corral and opened it. “I’m Zachary.” He held out his hand toward her son, ignoring her.
Jordan’s throat tightened. She swallowed several times, preparing herself for an onslaught of questions-possibly accusations-if her son gave his full name.
“I’m Nicholas.” He fit his small hand in the large one.
“It’s good to meet you, Nicholas. Let’s go. I think I’ve got the perfect little mare for you.”
As her son followed Zachary toward the barn, relief fluttered down her length. Nicholas’s undersize frame fooled many people into thinking he was younger than ten. In this case, she was glad because it gave her time to decide what to do about the fact that she and Zachary now lived in the same town again.
“So you and my mom know each other.”
“Yeah, a long time ago. We went to school together.” Zachary glanced back at her.
His limp as he entered the barn caught her attention. A riding accident? The second the question popped into her mind, she shook it away. She didn’t want to know the answer to that query. She didn’t want to have anything to do with him.
At the entrance Nicholas stopped and waited for her to catch up. Reluctantly she hurried toward him. Why out of all the activities and sports she had mentioned to him did Nicholas pick riding horses? Why had she listened to her sister and come out here? She suspected she knew what Rachel was up to and would have a word about her meddling.
No matter how much she berated herself and the circumstances she found herself in, she would have to deal with Zachary-at least for the next hour. After that she could hightail it out of here-before he found out Nicholas was his son.
Ever since Zachary had come back to Tallgrass, his past with Jordan would sneak into his thoughts, his dreams. He’d found himself wondering about her more and more. Now she was here at his ranch. He hadn’t been prepared for her surprise visit. Memories-both good and bad- overwhelmed him as he glanced back at Jordan with her son. Her life had gone on just fine without him.
Her son was what? Around eight? Obviously Jordan hadn’t wasted any time finding a replacement for him. His gut solidified like the hard ground when he was thrown from a horse. His leg aching more than usual, Zachary stalked toward the stall to fetch a horse for the boy to ride.
Zachary led the mare into the center of the barn. He certainly had a right to be mad at her. She’d left him. Not the other way around. When she’d received the scholarship to the art school in Savannah, he’d tried to be happy for her. But there was a good one within a few hours of Tallgrass, and yet she’d decided to go to the college in Georgia. He’d given her his heart, and she’d left it to spend four years at a place halfway across the country.
The night before she’d left for Savannah, they had a huge fight. Their views of their future together had been so different, and she’d decided to break it off with him. They needed their space. He’d waited two months for her to change her mind. Then when he couldn’t stay in Tallgrass another moment, he’d joined the army. He’d needed to get away to decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
And he’d never heard from her after that-until now.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission from Harlequin. All rights reserved.