Cowboys Don’t Cry

by

Anne McAllister

Don’t Fence Me In!

When Wyoming cowboy Robert Tanner promised to help out the new owner of the Three Bar C, he didn’t expect to have to teach a city girl schoolteacher how to run a ranch. Worse, Maggie MacLeod was a beautiful feisty redhead with flashing eyes and kissable lips — a woman who could tempt a saint.

Tanner was far from a saint. He didn’t do permanent, he didn’t do relationships. The smart thing would be to leave. But a man was only as good as his word. Trouble was, the longer he stayed, the more Maggie got under his skin…

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Tanner could hear them arguing even as he came along the side of the barn.

“He can’t.”

“Can so.”

“No way.”

“Yessir.”

“No disrespect, Ev,” he heard Bates say earnestly in his polite college-boy voice, “Tanner’s the best at breaking broncs in these parts, no two ways about it. But I don’t reckon even he could stay on this one.”

As he rounded the corner, Tanner saw old Everett Warren spit in the dust, then aim a glare at the younger cowboy. “Shows what you know.”

“Yeah,” a third, much higher voice chipped in, and Billy, Ev’s nine year old grandson, swung up on the corral fence. “Tanner can do anything.”

Tanner grinned a little at the boy’s confidence in him. In fact he hoped Billy was right. If he was, then everything would work out fine when he had to deal with his new boss this afternoon.

But before he had a chance to start thinking about that again, he saw Bates shake his head. “Not this mare,” he said, nodding at the one whose bridle he held.

She was the sweetest-looking jet black beauty Tanner had ever seen. The upcoming interview faded from his mind at the sight of her. Talk about prime horseflesh.

Tanner stopped and simply admired the mare as she fidgeted, stamping, tossing her head and shimmying as Bates spoke.

“Course he can. Can’t you?” Ev added, when he turned and saw Tanner coming their way.

“You can ride her, can’tcha, Tanner?” Billy demanded.

Tanner didn’t say anything, just stood considering her, tempted.

Ev grinned. “Sam Gallagher just brought her over. Says ain’t no one can stay on her at his place.”

“Plenty of guys have tried,” Bates put in quickly. “Gibb got bucked off last week. Didn’t last five seconds. Walker and Del Rio tried, too, and both of ’em bit the dust. Not surprising really, those two . . . but Gibb, he’s dynamite.”

“He ain’t Tanner,” Billy said stoutly.

“Ain’t nobody better’n Tanner.” Ev nodded emphatically, chewed and spat again. He looked at Tanner, his pale blue eyes clear and bright. “Show him.”

Tanner cocked his head. “Just like that?”

“You’ve rid your share,” Ev reminded him.

But that had been a while back. He was thirty-four now and occasionally aware after a long day in the saddle of his thrice-broken ribs, a shattered ankle, a lumpy collarbone, a shoulder with a permanent tendency toward dislocation, and the two pins still residing in his left knee.

Still, she was a beauty. And there was nothing in the world like pitting your strength and try against so much sheer energy, nothing that could compare with settling down onto a half a ton of twisting, surging animal. It felt as if you had the world by the tail.

Even so Tanner hesitated. He looked with longing at the ebony mare, feeling the weight of his foreman’s responsibilities pressing down on him as he did so.

“What good’s a dead foreman, I’d like to know?” Abigail had scolded last spring when he’d hit the dust, concussed, after being thrown by a frisky bay. “I don’t pay you to break horses or bones!”

“I’m fine,” Tanner had assured her, swallowing the dirt in his mouth and wiping a streak of blood off his lip. “Don’t fuss.”

But Abigail Crumm had loved a good fuss. And when a woman got to be eighty-four, a woman did whatever a woman wanted to do. In this case it was to prevail upon Tanner to stop riding broncs.

“Is that an order?”

Abigail had given a tiny, dry laugh. “Of course not. I’m simply asking, Tanner.” She’d slanted him a coy glance, adding in her best quavering old-lady voice, “I do so worry about you, you know.”

Tanner had snorted. Abigail had smiled.

He hadn’t ridden the bronc. A bad heart had made Abigail vulnerable, and Tanner was damned if he was going to be the death of her. She’d had enough to worry about without him.

But now Abigail was gone.

The slight cold she’d brushed off in February had turned into pneumonia the first week in March.

He’d told her to go to the hospital. He’d told her orange juice and afternoon naps weren’t enough. But Abigail had ignored him.

“You know horses, Tanner, I’ll give you that,” she’d said with as much briskness as she could muster. “You’re a good cattleman, too. A wonderful foreman. But until you can show me a medical degree, I’ll do my own doctoring.”

“They got medical degrees in Casper. I’ll drive you,” he offered almost desperately.

But Abigail had simply smiled up at him from her rocking chair and taken another sip of juice. Outside the wind had rattled sleet against the windowpanes. “No.”

“Damn it, you’re not going to get well like this!”

“I’ve had a good life, Tanner. I’d rather die with my boots on like my daddy did than molder away in some hospital room.”

“You’re not gonna molder, Abigail!”

“No,” she said firmly. “I’m not.”

She hadn’t. But she hadn’t survived either.

Two weeks ago, almost late because he’d had to ride halfway to Hole-in-the-Wall to fix a fence, Tanner had sat slumped in the back pew at her funeral to listen to Reverend Dailey remind everyone what an inspiration Abigail Crumm had always been.

“She went her own way. She did her own thing. At one time or another, she had the cattlemen, the oil men, the sheep men, and the townspeople all mad at her. But there wasn’t a more caring person in the whole of Wyoming than Abigail Crumm.”

Reverend Dailey’s eyes scanned the packed church, looking at all the people whose lives Abigail Crumm had touched. Then he smiled. “Or,” he added, “a more surprising one.”

At the time Tanner hadn’t realized the full import of that statement.

Now he did.

And in a little less than an hour he’d be meeting the biggest one.

He’d been prepared to have Abigail leave the ranch to one of her causes. The good Lord knew she’d had plenty of ’em—all the way from stray cats to homeless children. And Tanner had figured he could handle that. Being foreman with an absentee landlord was the best of all possible worlds. Besides, who else would she leave it to? Ab had no living relatives. As highly as she thought of her old friend Ev, he didn’t have the stamina to manage a spread this big, and Tanner knew she wouldn’t leave it to him.

In fact he’d made damned sure she didn’t.

“The hell you say,” he’d sputtered when she’d told him she was thinking of naming him her beneficiary. “What would you go and do a stupid thing like that for?”

“I trust you, Tanner. You know the ranch better than anyone.”

“I know what a load of work it is. You ever see a happy rancher, Abby? Course not. They got too many worries to be happy. No thanks. I’m a cowboy, not a rancher. And cowboys don’t stay. We’re free. No strings attached. I came with my saddle. I’ll go with my saddle. That’s the way I like it.”

“You’ve been here four years,” Abigail reminded him.

“And I can leave tomorrow.”

“Do you want to?”

He shrugged, feeling uncomfortable under her speculative blue gaze. “Course not,” he said after a moment. “Not now anyhow. You need me.”

She smiled gently. “Yes.”

“So—” he shrugged “—I’ll hang around awhile. Because I want to. Not because I have to. Don’t you go tyin’ me down.”

Abigail just looked at him for a long moment, so long that Tanner wondered whether she was really seeing him or something else entirely. Finally she’d nodded. “Whatever you say, Tanner.”

When Ev came home and told him what the will said over supper, he found that she’d left him a horse trailer and her two best saddle horses. “Portable assets,” she’d called them.

She left the ranch to Maggie MacLeod.

“What the hell’s a Maggie MacLeod?” Tanner had asked, taking the cup of coffee Ev handed him. He hadn’t had time to go to the reading himself. Cows didn’t stop calving just for wills to be read. “Never heard of it.”

It sure as hell didn’t sound like stray cats. But Tanner didn’t really care. One cause was as good as another as far as he was concerned, as long as whoever was in charge stayed out of his way and let him do his job.

“Not a committee,” Ev had said. “A woman.”

A woman. One woman? Tanner frowned. “Just a regular . . . person, you mean?” Not a cause at all?

“Uh-huh.” Ev nodded, grinning.

“What sort of woman?”

“Schoolmarm.”

Tanner couldn’t believe it. Visions of starchy, desiccated old prunes fogged his mind. Heaven knew he’d had his share of them. All those years and all those classrooms had seemed like some particularly enduring form of torture to Tanner. He couldn’t wait to get out.

And now Abby had left the ranch to one?

“Hell and damnation!” He leapt to his feet and stalked around the room.

Ev’s grin vanished and he glanced at Billy, then gave Tanner a reproving look. Tanner didn’t apologize. He was too busy envisioning what a mess a school teacher could make out of the Three Bar C.

“She teaches down in Casper,” Billy volunteered. “Third grade. Like Ms. Farragut.”

“That’s a hell of a recommendation,” Tanner muttered. Old Battle-Ax Farragut looked like she could freeze a herd of cattle in July, and Tanner knew from what Billy and Ev said that there was only one way to do things as far as she was concerned: Farragut’s way. His jaw tightened.

“Ab met her at some soup kitchen,” Ev added. “Ladlin’ out for the homeless.”

“The homeless?” Tanner echoed. He couldn’t quite see Farragut doing that. But a do-gooder wasn’t much better.

“Swell,” Tanner grumbled. “She’ll probably want to knit caps for the cattle.”

Billy giggled.

“How come Ab never brought her out here?” he muttered, kicking out a chair and dropping into it, scowling.

“She did once or twice. You were gone. Riding fence or feeding cattle. What you were supposed to be doin’,” Ev said. “Ab didn’t need you to vet her visitors.”

“You met her then? What’s she like? She live in Casper?” If she had a house and was settled in, that wouldn’t be so bad. She could be a landlady from there. Not quite as good as a cause, but . . .

Ev shook his head. “Nope. And she ain’t never been on a ranch before. ’Cept to visit Ab.”

Tanner’s mouth opened and shut twice before he could say, “You mean Ab went and saddled us with a city slicker?”

Ev shrugged. “She seemed nice enough. Real pleasant, I thought. And, of course, Ab liked her.”

“Ab liked more folks than Will Rogers did!”

“Even sour-faced old skunks like you,” Ev said easily. He clapped his hand on Tanner’s shoulder. “Where’s your faith in human nature, boy? Ab wasn’t no fool. If she liked this Maggie well enough to leave her the ranch, well, that’s good enough for me. I reckon she knew what she was doin’.”

Tanner didn’t reckon anything of the sort, but he wasn’t going to win an argument with Ev about it. Ev had always believed the sun rose and set on Abigail Crumm, and there wasn’t any arguing with him. Anyway, a more cheerful thought had just occurred to Tanner.

“She’ll probably stay in Casper, then,” he said. “City lady like that won’t want to be stuck out here. Besides, there aren’t many homeless this far out.”

But yesterday’s mail had brought a letter from Clyde Bridges, Abigail’s lawyer, which squelched that hope.

Miss Maggie MacLeod was looking forward to seeing the Three Bar C, the letter had read. Not even Ms., Tanner had noted grimly. Worse and worse. She would be coming on Wednesday. Would he please be available to meet with her at four to discuss her move to the ranch?

Move to the ranch?

Tanner had stared at the words, willing them to vanish. They hadn’t.

He’d shut his eyes and tried once more to imagine the sort of fanatic schoolmarm whom Abigail would’ve appreciated enough to do something as harebrained as this. Then he tried to imagine such a woman living on the Three Bar C. It didn’t bear thinking about.

His only hope was that she’d see it that way, too.

The Three Bar C was not your House and Garden variety ranch. It was damned near a 19th century relic, miles from town in foothills of the Big Horn Mountains. The two-story house was built of pine logs which Abigail’s father had cut himself and dragged with his team to the site. It had four walls, a stone fireplace, and character, but not much else. Even running water and indoor plumbing had arrived within recent memory.

It was no place for a woman.

Abigail had been born here, of course. But that meant she’d grown up to it, knew it like the back of her hand. She’d never had another home.

Miss Maggie MacLeod, whoever she was, had. She wouldn’t belong.

And at four o’clock today, in less than an hour, Tanner was going to have to convince her of that.

“I dare you,” Ev said now.

Tanner blinked, startled back to the present. “What?”

“To ride her.”

“Maybe he’s got too much sense to risk it,” Bates suggested.

Ev shook his head. “Not Tanner.”

Tanner gave him a baleful look. “Thanks a lot.”

“Just meant you ain’t afraid of risks.” Ev lifted a brow. “Are you?”

It was crazy. It was insane. He hadn’t ridden an unbroke horse like this mare in over a year. His doctor would be furious. Ab would be spinning in her grave.

He reached for the reins. He needed the challenge. He needed the thrill, the physical release that he knew would come from trying to bring chaos under control.

He would do it; and then he would sort out Miss Maggie MacLeod.

“Awwright!” Billy shouted as Tanner swung up into the saddle.

In an instant the horse had gathered herself together. Beneath him, Tanner felt her bunch and thrust, exploding as she tried to throw this unfamiliar burden from her back.

Flung high and hanging tight, Tanner laughed. He thrust his arm into the air, exulting in her blowup, savoring the surge of powerful energy, the challenge of controlling it, of controlling and taming this little black beauty of a horse.

The landscape blurred around him. Ev and Bates and Billy faded, the fence and the barn evaporated, the car coming over the snow-covered rise disappeared into a haze of winter white and dusty blue. The world became a swirl of color. All that mattered lay beneath the saddle leather between his legs, in the gleaming sweaty hide of the ebony mare, in the challenge of bringing her under control.

She jumped and snapped, hopped and twisted. Tanner hung on. She raced and shimmied, arched and bucked. Tanner clung.

And then he began to get the rhythm of her. He caught her beat and moved with it. His spine twisted, his knee pained, his head snapped back and his hat flew off.

He stayed on. He anticipated. He compensated. He leaned, arched, dug.

The mare ducked her head, lunging forward, then all of a sudden, jerked back, whipping him upward, unseating him.

He flew. Flipped. Hit.

Hard.

He was in heaven.

Had to be.

Why else, when at last he opened his eyes, would there be an angel with the greenest eyes, the most kissable mouth and the most gorgeous mane of wavy auburn hair he’d ever seen staring down into his face?

He smiled. So there were eternal rewards after all. And hell, he hadn’t even had to be a complete saint to get one! Fuzzy-minded and light-headed, Tanner reached out tentatively to touch her.

“Don’t move!”

The sound of her voice was so unexpected that he jerked. It hurt—but no more than the reaching out had.

He shut his eyes carefully, trying to get his bearings. Was he in heaven or wasn’t he? He didn’t think you were supposed to hurt in heaven, but his Sunday-school teachers had never been the best.

Slowly he opened his eyes again. expecting the vision to have vanished.

She was still there, bending even closer now. Her skin looked soft as the petals of Ab’s summer roses and there was a faint rosy flush on her cheeks. And God, that mouth! How long had it been since he’d kissed a woman? Tanner swallowed and started to struggle up.

She put out a hand to stop him. “I said, hold still. Don’t try to get up yet.”

She even sounded sort of angelic, her voice was gentle on his ears, caressing almost. Did angels caress? He wanted to ask her, but he couldn’t. He still hadn’t caught his breath.

All he could do was lie back, give her a muzzy smile and shut his eyes again. His head buzzed.

“He ain’t fainted, has he?” This voice was gruff and distinctly non-angelic. Ev.

Hell.

Tanner forced his eyes open again. There were other faces crowding into his line of vision now—Ev’s, grizzled and worried, Billy’s, dismayed, Bates’s, resigned.

So much for heaven.

But—he gave his head a small painful shake and tried to focus his gaze—then who was she, because she still hadn’t gone away, this redheaded angel of his?

Tanner levered himself up on his elbows in the mixture of mud and slush and barnyard muck to squint at the woman who was apparently neither a figment of his imagination nor a result of his having fallen on his head.

“Be very careful,” she said to him. “You might’ve broken something.”

“Prob’ly did,” he said on a gasp, grateful at least that he could finally speak. “Serve me right.”

“I told him so,” Bates murmured.

“He done better’n Gibb,” Billy said stoutly.

“Did,” the auburn-haired vision corrected absently.

And hearing her, Tanner moaned.

“What’s wrong?” she asked him quickly.

“You’re the school teacher?” He couldn’t believe it and knew at the very same moment it was dead certain true.

His former angel smiled. “That’s right. I’m Maggie MacLeod.” She held out her hand to him.

He didn’t take it. He’d probably have pulled her right down into the muck if he had. Besides, his own were jammed deep in muddy gloves and he wasn’t taking them off for the sake of politeness.

Anyway, he didn’t want to shake hands with her.

Not just for one reason now, but for a multitude.

This was his new boss? The proper lady school teacher? The boot-faced drill sergeant he’d been expecting?

They sure as hell weren’t making school teachers the way they used to. So much for battle-axes like old Farragut.

But in her way, this one was far worse. She was the prettiest damned woman he’d seen in a month of Sundays. And he was lying flat on his back in the mud in front of her! Suddenly Tanner was burning with embarrassment.

Gritting his teeth, he stumbled to his feet. He would have fallen flat again if Ev and Bates hadn’t grabbed him and hauled him up unceremoniously between them.

Being vertical wasn’t as much of an advantage as he’d hoped. Maggie MacLeod was almost as tall as he was. The top of that beautiful head of hair was exactly at his eye level. He shook Ev and Bates off and planted his feet squarely.

“You’re early,” he accused.

“A little.” She didn’t apologize. But she did smile. And he couldn’t help it—it still looked like an angel’s smile. There was even a very tiny, very kissable dimple just to the side of her mouth. “I didn’t know how long it would take to get here,” she was saying when he jerked his attention back to her words. “Some of the gravel roads aren’t the best this time of year, you know. I did better than I expected.”

And worse than he had hoped.

Tanner grunted. He reached up, intending to jerk his hat down and scowl at her from beneath the brim in the authoritative, intimidating look he used whenever he wanted to exert his authority.

His head was bare. He could see his hat lying in the mud clear on the other side of the corral. He swallowed a curse. His hair tangled damply across his forehead and he couldn’t even shove it off without making himself a bigger mess than he already was. His fingers flexed and tightened in frustration.

Maggie MacLeod was still smiling, but was also looking at him a little doubtfully. “I have an appointment with Miss Crumm’s foreman. Someone called—” she hesitated “—Tanner?”

“That’s him,” Billy said brightly, poking Tanner in a very sore rib just in case she hadn’t already guessed his identity.

Her smile faded momentarily and Tanner felt a split second’s hope that she’d take off running in the other direction. Or that maybe, if she wasn’t a part of his dream, he was a part of hers and any minute they’d both wake up.

But, “So it is,” Maggie MacLeod said briskly. She started to offer him her hand again, took a look at the mud and stuffed her hand into the pocket of her trousers. “Well, it’s nice to meet you at last.” She waited, expecting a response apparently.

“Yeah, you, too,” Tanner managed after a moment.

“You didn’t come to the lawyer’s office, I don’t believe.”

“Had work to do. Ranch doesn’t run itself.”

“Yes, that’s what Mr. Warren said. Is it—” she hesitated “—Mr. Tanner or . . .”

“Just Tanner,” he said flatly. He glanced at Ev almost desperately. “What time is it?”

“Almost 3:15.”

“Our appointment was for four,” he said to Maggie.

“Yes, but—”

Tanner jerked his head in the direction of the ranch house. “You can wait in there. I’ll be up at four.” Surely he could get his act together in half an hour.

Turning on his heel and thanking God his knee didn’t go right out from under him, he stalked across the corral, snagged his hat and continued on toward the ebony mare.

“Come on, sweetheart,” he said, reaching for the reins again. “You an’ I got some work to do.”

She didn’t wait ‘in there.’ She stayed right where she was. She went only so far as to scramble up onto the top rail of the corral fence and settle herself next to Billy. And there she stayed, watching his every move.

Tanner ignored her.

He climbed back into the saddle and put her right out of his head. He didn’t even notice her gasp when the mare shot up into the air and twisted so that he nearly fell off. He didn’t pay a bit of attention to her rapt gaze or the way her head moved to watch as he and the mare plunged from one end of the corral to the other. He hardly saw the way she flipped her long red hair back out of her face when the wind whipped it around, or the way she winced and sucked in her breath when he got thrown to the ground.

He got thrown three more times.

He could’ve got thrown a hundred and he wouldn’t have given up. Hell, it wouldn’t have mattered if the mare had broken every damned bone in his body and killed him in the process.

He wasn’t quitting in front of Maggie MacLeod.

Still, each time he hauled himself out of the mud, his shoulder seemed a little less stable and his leg was worse. His ribs began to feel as if the mare had done a tango on them. And the last time he landed, he bit his tongue so hard that he could still taste the blood. Gritting his teeth, Tanner staggered to his feet and headed over to where Ev held the horse.

“You don’t have to do this,” Bates said quickly.

Tanner took the reins. “Yes, I do.”

“Not ’cause of what I said,” Ev said quickly. “I didn’t mean for you to kill yourself.”

“I’m fine.”

“Course you are. That’s why you’re limping an’ spittin’ blood.”

Tanner ignored him, still not glancing at the woman on the fence, yet feeling her eyes on him anyway as he swung once more into the saddle.

Blessedly the mare was as tired as he was. And this time when he got on her back, she did nothing more than give a couple of half-hearted bucks and a shimmy, then she tossed her head and trotted easily around the corral.

“I tol’ you so,” Billy crowed. Ev grinned, and Bates looked downright impressed.

Tanner couldn’t tell what Miss Maggie MacLeod thought. She didn’t say a word and he didn’t glance her way. It was all he could do to keep from grimacing at every step the mare took. But he rode her around twice more before he urged her over to the far side of the corral and slid carefully out of the saddle.

Leaning against her, he talked to her, soothing her. She needed that, but so did he, in order to give his trembling, aching leg time to adjust once more to solid ground. Even so it damn near buckled when he took his first step.

“You okay?” Ev asked him.

“Swell.” He winced, then walked gingerly, masking his limp with as much nonchalance as he could muster as he led the mare toward the barn.

He waited until he got there and could support himself with his hand against the door frame until he turned and faced Maggie MacLeod.

He glanced at his watch. It was quarter to four. “I’ll be up to the house as soon as I’ve got her settled. Put on the coffee and we’ll talk.”

Tanner had never played football, but he didn’t have to be a quarterback to know that there was truth in the cliché about the best defense being a good offense. He also knew he needed one. Bad.

“She’s really beautiful, ain’t she?” Billy asked him, skipping along ahead of Tanner, but glancing back at Maggie who was walking toward the house.

Tanner didn’t have to glance back. Imprinted in his mind from a mere few seconds of watching her was the way she moved. He could shut his eyes right now and still see the feminine sway of her hips in those soft elegant trousers. He swallowed and brushed past Billy into the bunkhouse. “She’s all right,” he allowed.

Bates, following along after him, snorted, “All right? She’s a fox.”

“You don’t have to drool,” Tanner snapped.

“Hey—” Bates lifted his hands and stepped back “—I was only saying. I’m not poaching.” He looked Tanner up and down. “You want her, you can have her.”

“What the hell would I want her for?” Tanner grumbled. He pulled off his shirt, wincing as his shoulder popped.

Bates grinned. “What would you want her for? You don’t know? Hell, Tanner, I knew you were a little slow sometimes, but I thought even you knew what to do with a woman!”

“Shut up, Bates,” Tanner said with a geniality he didn’t feel. He stripped off a shirt and yanked a clean one out of the closet. Most of his clothes were up at the house, since he’d moved up there last year. Now he was glad he kept a few things down here. He padded into the bathroom and turned on the shower, then paused to consider his face in the mirror.

He was grimy and sweaty and filthy. Under the dirt he could see the beginnings of a bruise on his cheekbone where one of the stirrups had caught him when he was flying through the air. And there was a cut over his left eye, but the blood had pretty much dried. The cut inside his mouth wasn’t worth worrying about.

He turned his head, looking at his face dispassionately. He wasn’t what any woman would call really handsome, though they didn’t exactly run in the other direction. He had a lean face, weathered. His eyes were blue and deep-set beneath dark brows. He needed a shave. He scowled at his reflection.

He frowned too much, Abby told him. “Smile, Tanner,” she was always telling him. He made himself smile. It could have been worse.

Once he got the mud off and the whiskers, he’d clean up pretty good.

Of course, he needed a haircut. He rarely bothered to get his thick shaggy hair trimmed. There were always more important things to do whenever he got to town. Maybe he could yell for Ev and see if the old man wanted to take a few whacks. And then Maggie wouldn’t think—

Whoa!

He stopped dead, staring at himself in the mirror, making himself run that thought through his head again. Maybe Maggie wouldn’t think—

Again he stopped.

Finish it, he commanded himself.

Maybe Maggie wouldn’t think he was such a bum.

Damn it, what did he care what Maggie MacLeod thought of him?

He flipped the shower back off again, instead simply ducking his head under the tap of the sink, scrubbing at his face and hair until most of the grime was gone.

He took an old razor out of the medicine chest, studied his whiskery cheeks, then put the razor back again.

There was no reason to spruce himself up for Maggie MacLeod. He was working for her, not courting her, for God’s sake.

Tanner hadn’t courted anyone in years. Wasn’t ever going to again!

The very notion that he might, even in his subconscious, have considered it, infuriated him. Scowling, he stalked back into the other room.

“Hand me that shirt,” he said to Billy.

“I thought you were going to—? Aren’t you going to—” Bates glanced toward the shower, then back at Tanner’ still sweaty torso. He shut his mouth.

Tanner buttoned the shirt and jammed it down into his jeans. If the faint odor of horse and mud clung to him, that was too damn bad. If Maggie MacLeod thought she’d was going to like ranch living, she’d better get used to it.

He shoved away the thought that Abigail would have had his hide if he’d ever dared show up at the house like this. The Three Bar C might not be the center of the civilized world, but Abigail had been a hat-and-gloves type lady.

Tanner had known better than to take his sweat-and-mud-stained body anywhere near her. She’d demanded civilization even from the likes of him.

But Maggie MacLeod wasn’t Abigail.

She was a thorn in his side and he was going to do his damnedest to get rid of her.

He was glad he’d stayed awake all night last night preparing a series of rational arguments that would convince a dried-up, prune-faced schoolmarm that the Three Bar C was no place for a lady. He prayed to God the same arguments would work as well on Miss Maggie MacLeod.

As he strode across the yard and climbed the stairs to the porch, the wind shifted and he caught a good whiff of the corral that he was bringing in with him.

Maybe he wouldn’t need rational arguments at all, he thought with a grin. Maybe just one look and one deep breath would be enough to send her packing.

A guy could hope.

End of Excerpt

Cowboys Don’t Cry is available in the following formats:

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March 29, 2016

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