The Tanner Brothers, Book 2

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Montana Born Books
The Tanner Brothers, Book 2
Release Date:

Apr 27, 2016

More From Anne →

Cowboys Don’t Quit

by

Anne McAllister

Cowboy on the Run . . .

Once upon a time Luke Tanner had it all.  Well, almost all.  Then a Hollywood stunt gone wrong stole  his best friend — and Luke knew it was all his fault.  He could have stopped it, should have stopped it.

Jillian Crane doesn’t agree.  When she tracks her late fiancé’s best friend to his Colorado mountain hideaway, she is determined to make Luke start living again.  She doesn’t know she’s the last person on earth Luke wants to see.  And she certainly doesn’t anticipate the feelings she develops for Luke … nor realize how deep Luke’s are for her.

But can they get over the past they share?  And even if Jill can forgive him, can Luke ever forgive himself?

Enjoy an Excerpt →

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He was dreaming again.

The same dream. Always the same. They were body surfing near the pier in Manhattan Beach, he and Keith—laughing, joking, competing as always for the biggest wave, the steepest drop, the longest ride.

They were showing off for Keith’s fans on the pier, all of them watching, waving, smiling.

He saw Jillian, Keith’s fiancée, there, too, braced against the railing, her long dark hair tangling across her face in the wind as she waved to Keith, then looked out to sea and pointed.

They both looked back toward where she was pointing. The swell was already noticeable, building now, moving toward them.

“Wave of the day!” Keith yelled, grinning and moving into position, beginning to stroke toward shore.

Luke watched Keith go, then he moved, too, slower, as he always was in the water, but still in time. He caught the momentum, merging with the force of the wave, rising on its crest to see the water and the foam and the beach spread out before him. He caught a glimpse of Jillian leaning over the railing, watching. He spied Keith just ahead, lose his balance, begin to fall.

And then, as the wave crested and curved under, Luke fell, too. The wave pounded down on top of him, pressing him into the ocean floor even as it dragged him along. He felt a thump. His body collided with Keith’s. Arms and legs tangled in the power of the wave. They struggled, shifted, separated. He felt Keith’s fingers grab for him. They clutched, touched, clung. Oddly frantic. And then they slipped away.

Away . . .

He opened his mouth to call. Keith!

But the water choked him. Gagged him. Pressed down upon him, swirling and pounding, grinding him into the sand, crushing his lungs, burning his throat . . . Then for a moment, blessed air. And just as suddenly the wet suffocation was back, choking his mouth, covering his nose . . .

Luke jerked awake. Hank, the old herding dog, was licking his face.

“Damn.” He shuddered and pushed her away. “Hell of a way to say good mornin’,” he grumbled at her, but he knew it wasn’t Hank’s fault. It was the dream.

Always and, it seemed, forever—the dream. And it wasn’t even the way it had happened, for God’s sake.

It—Keith’s death.

Even now, almost two years later, it was hard to think of Keith Mallory as dead. Intense, dynamic, irrepressible Keith—mover and shaker, dreamer and doer, one of America’s best-loved actors, not to mention his own best friend—had always had more to live for, more to give than anyone Luke knew.

His fists clenched futilely against the lingering sense of Keith’s fingers slipping out of his grasp. He drew a ragged breath.

In reality he’d had no chance to even come that close. He hadn’t even been in the water. He’d been standing high and dry on the riverbank, too far away to help, yet too near not to realize what was happening.

Luke sat up on his cot now, shivering still, not so much from the cold as from the memory. He dragged in another breath of the crisp Colorado mountain air and tried to shake the shivers off. But even though it was July already, at close to nine thousand feet it never got very warm until the sun was up, and what memories didn’t accomplish, the cool morning temperature did.

He pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, his body trembling in a now familiar cold sweat. He rubbed a hand across his wet face, tasting salt amid the dog slobber. Tears. He rested his head against his bent knees and tried to steady his breathing.

Keith. Oh, God, Keith. I’m sorry. It should have been me.

The dog nudged his shoulder and tried to lick him again. Luke looped an arm around her neck and rubbed his face against her fur. Then he scrubbed a hand across his eyes and hauled himself to his feet. There would be no sleeping now, no point in even trying.

Not that he wanted to. Not when he dreamed.

He could tell from the faint light filtering through the window of the rough log cabin that it wasn’t quite dawn. The sky to the east was still more dark gray than rose. But there was nothing to be gained by staying in bed. He would just lie there remembering what he would give his soul to forget.

He picked up the coffee pot, let himself out into the crisp mountain air, and headed toward the pump by the spring. He filled the pot, then carried it back to the cabin, dumped in the coffee, and started a fire on the small propane stove.

He made himself concentrate on each task as he performed it. He could’ve done it all mindlessly, but he knew better than to do so.

Whatever part of his mind he didn’t keep firmly focused on what he was doing would be on the dream or, worse, on the memories that caused it.

He rubbed his fingers together. He couldn’t feel the clutch of Keith’s fingers anymore. Sometimes the feeling lasted for hours. Not, thank God, today.

While the coffee was heating, he scrubbed his face with some of the water he’d brought up the night before, then dragged a comb through his shaggy dark hair. He could tell by feel that the next time he went into town he’d better stop by Bernie’s and get a haircut. Not that he’d be going anytime soon. Lots of camp men these days came down off the summer range every week or so, but they had friends, family, people to see, mail to pick up, a life to keep in touch with in town. Luke didn’t. Nor did he want any. He set his hat on his head and tugged down the brim, then went back to the stove.

The coffee was hot. He poured himself a mugful and stood staring out the small window, his hands wrapping the cup, as he made himself think about what he needed to do that day. Chivvy cattle up out of the creek bottom. That was a given. They were like magnets, those cows. You barely got them up to the head of the draw and left them, and they drifted right back down again. Or got spooked and ran back again. He needed to circle up the mountain and check on the cattle near the National Forest land, making sure the gates were closed. Hikers didn’t seem to realize all the work they caused if they didn’t leave gates the way they found them. If one was open he’d have his day’s work cut out for him.

In the early morning light he could look down across the meadow and see three of his horses already lurking by the quaky fence waiting for him to holler ’em down and grain ’em. He didn’t even need to holler anymore. He’d been doing it for more than a year now—long enough that they knew what to expect.

He took another swallow of coffee, then set his cup down and poured out food for the dogs. There were two others besides Hank—a scruffy looking catch dog called Muff, and another border collie named Tommy. They brushed against his legs as he poured their food out for them. Hank nudged under his hand, her pointy nose wet and cold against Luke’s fingers. Luke rubbed her under the chin.

The panic was gone now. The pressure had eased on his lungs as the dream faded and the sunrise brought light and clarity and color to the mountain meadow he called home.

Breathing more steadily now, Luke finished his cup of coffee. He made and ate a quick breakfast, then set to work.

Some days were more work than others. Today—because of the dream—Luke made it more work than it was.

He moved twenty head of cattle out of the creek bottom, doctored some foot rot, rode the fence all along the National Forest line. The gates were all closed, but someone had cut the wire to get through where there wasn’t one.

He rounded up a dozen cattle and brought them back down, fixed the fence, then circled over through a stand of aspens toward the creek. And found that young Soler bull caught in the middle of a willow patch.

Bulls weren’t the easiest critters to deal with at the best of times, and when they’d been stuck as long as this bull likely had been, their tempers weren’t exactly sweet. The Soler was no exception.

Luke was tempted to leave him. Wasn’t anybody looking over his shoulder, and it was his bull. But the bull couldn’t do his job unless Luke did his. More than that, though, Luke knew a dreamless sleep came more often when he was so dead tired he couldn’t move.

He laid a loop over the bull’s head, alternately dragging and chivvying the animal, while Hank and Tommy nipped and prodded. He was chivvying on foot, not dragging on horseback, when the bull finally broke free and rewarded Luke by a kick at his ribs.

He missed. But he had foot rot.

“Son of a gun,” Luke muttered, taking off his hat to swipe a hand through sweat-dampened hair. “Must be my lucky day.”

He was dirty, and sweaty, tired and sore by the time he rode back over the rise that looked down on his camp. The bull might’ve missed his ribs with his first kick, but he hadn’t missed his shin later when Luke was sidestepping his horse in close enough to give him an injection. Luke figured he’d be hobbling tomorrow. He didn’t care. Physical pain wouldn’t keep him awake or make him dream.

Tonight he’d earned his sleep.

He thought he just might get it, too. Until he saw someone sitting by his cabin door.

Nobody he’d invited, that was damn certain. Since he’d moved up the mountain a year ago last spring, Luke hadn’t encouraged visitors. Jimmy, his hand who was renting Luke’s ranch house down in the valley, came up when Luke asked him to help move cattle. Now and then he brought Luke provisions or a coffee cake or some cookies his wife, Annette, had made. But Jimmy had just been up three days ago. And Luke’s only other visitor was an old schoolmate, Linda Gutierrez’s, son, Paco.

“You don’t want him around, you send him away,” Linda had told him from the first.

But Luke knew Paco’s dad had died three years ago and he remembered all too well how he’d felt when his own dad had died. He’d been older than Paco when it happened. Sixteen. Paco was only eight and needier even than he had been.

Luke hadn’t had the heart to send the boy away.

Besides, talking with Paco was a form of penance. All the kid ever wanted to do was hear about Keith. He probably knew by heart every movie Keith Mallory had made and he took great joy in asking Luke all about the ones he’d worked on.

Luke wondered when the boy would realize that it was Luke’s fault his hero was dead.

He sat up a little straighter in the saddle now, trying to guess his visitor’s identity. Whoever it was saw him and got up, beginning to move toward him now.

It was a woman.

A tall and slender woman in jeans that hugged curves no cowboy would ever have. Long brown hair tangled across her face in the evening breeze. Then the breeze lifted the swath of hair and Luke felt as if the bull had kicked him right in the gut.

God, no! It couldn’t be.

He shut his eyes, begged and pleaded with the Almighty. Then he opened them again, still praying.

To no avail.

It was Jillian. Jillian Crane.

Luke wished the earth would open and swallow him up.

No such luck.

He slowed his horse, tempted to turn tail and head right back up the mountain, knowing damned well he would have if she hadn’t seen him. But she had, so he had no choice but to continue down.

He didn’t know what the hell she was doing here. Couldn’t begin to imagine. They hadn’t seen each other since the day of Keith’s funeral almost two years ago. They hadn’t spoken even then.

They hadn’t needed to. Jill had said everything there was to be said the afternoon Keith died. Luke could remember it as clearly as if it had been yesterday. Her words haunted him so regularly that it might as well have been.

They’d been two weeks into a new movie, a tough-guy mountain man script with lots of the action adventure stuff that was Keith’s forte and, as his stunt double, Luke’s bread and butter. It was grueling, strenuous, and more than a little dangerous—exactly the sort of thing they both loved.

They’d been filming for fourteen days straight, based in a gritty little town on the Salmon River in Idaho, and by the end of the second week in October they were as dirty, earthy, and wild-looking as the landscape.

It was still warm during the days, but chilly after the sun went down, and every night after they finished, he and Keith and some of the rest of the crew would warm their insides in the local bar.

They were a few beers into the warming process, throwing darts and arguing about which of them was the better shot—and hence the better man—when Luke stepped up to take his toss.

Suddenly the door opened . . . and there she was.

Jillian.

Luke’s dart sailed over the top of the board.

If anyone noticed, it wasn’t Keith.

“Hey,” Keith had shouted, a sudden broad grin lighting his unshaven face. “My lady’s come!” And he knocked over a bar stool in his haste to get to her.

Luke didn’t move. He stood rooted to the spot, watching as Keith wrapped her in a bear hug, then turned, grinning, his arm looped over her shoulders, and faced the rest of them.

“Look who’s here,” he said unnecessarily.

“Bring ’er over,” one of the sound men had called out. “Plenty of room, ain’t that right, Luke?”

For a moment, Luke didn’t speak. Couldn’t. He was prepared. So get prepared, he commanded himself. He drew a deep, steadying breath, met Keith’s grin, then let his eyes settle on Jill. “That’s right,” he said.

Keith just shook his head. “Not on your life. Come on, sweetheart.” He started to draw Jill with him toward the door, then stopped and kissed her long and hard, surfacing only long enough to glance over his shoulder at them and say, “Find your own women to keep you warm.” Then he dragged her off to his room.

Their room, Luke corrected himself.

The one right on the other side of the wall from his.

Not that he went back to his. He had no intention of lying there in his cold, solitary bed and thinking about Keith making love to Jill at that very moment on the other side of a few inches of plaster.

Because that’s what Keith would be doing.

It’s what Luke would be doing if Jill were his. But she wasn’t. Would never be.

A guy didn’t poach on his best friend’s girl.

A guy got drunk instead.

He didn’t go back to his room until two the next morning. He stayed out as long as the bars stayed open. But even when he got back, drunk, and dead tired, he still didn’t sleep.

He’d lain there listening for the slightest noise, the softest murmur, the faintest rustling sound of the bed in the next room. He heard nothing. It didn’t matter. His imagination was enough. He finished his bottle of whiskey only an hour before his alarm went off in the morning.

He made it to the set on time, but his bloodshot eyes and haggard face were a dead giveaway.

“Little too much celebrating?” Keith was in high good humor as he’d teased Luke about his hangover.

And why wouldn’t he be? Luke thought savagely. He’d grunted a reply.

“Oughta get yourself a lady like mine,” Keith told him cheerfully. “You wouldn’t be out runnin’ around if you had yourself a Jill.”

For an instant Luke’s eyes met Jill’s. At once she looked away.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Keith. Leave him alone,” she said irritably, taking his hand. “Luke doesn’t want an old stick-in-the-mud like me.”

“He’d better not. You’re mine.” Keith grinned at her and punched Luke lightly on the arm. “C’mon. Grab some coffee and let’s get this show on the road.”

They were set up to shoot the scene where Keith’s character, a renegade cowboy, escaped from a band of Indian pursuers, hurtling down a draw to where he’d left his canoe. Then under a barrage of arrows, he was supposed to shove off, jump into the canoe and paddle into the roiling river until the white water swept him out of sight.

“We’ve got it almost all rigged,” Carl Oakes, the stunt coordinator, said to Luke when he and Keith found him on the riverbank. “Plenty of safety lines, so if things look grim, bail out.”

Luke nodded. He swallowed, studying the tumbling white water, trying to psyche himself up. His head pounded and his stomach was roiling worse than the river.

“I want to do it,” Keith said suddenly.

Luke jerked his head around to see the determined set of his friend’s jaw.

Carl rolled his eyes. “Don’t be an idiot. That’s what Luke’s here for. He’s the stuntman. You’re the star.”

Keith nodded. “Exactly. That’s the point.” And Luke could see him getting psyched up even as he spoke. “It’s me that people want to see do it,” Keith insisted.

“You just want Jill to see you do it,” Carl said, with a wink at Luke.

Luke didn’t say anything.

Keith grinned. “Well, that, too.”

“Garrison won’t let you,” Carl predicted. “No way he’s going to let you.”

But surprisingly, Garrison, the director, was willing to listen to Keith’s argument. He even agreed that shooting Keith in close-up as he scrambled into the canoe, then panning wide as he moved downstream, was a good idea.

“No break, huh? Makes sense,” he said, a speculative smile forming. “It’s not too big a risk, is it?” He looked at Carl for confirmation.

Keith scoffed. “Carl’s more careful than my mother. Aren’tcha, Carl?”

Carl scowled and muttered under his breath. But Keith kept talking and Garrison kept listening, while Luke stood by, wishing he was a million miles away, and didn’t say a word.

He knew what was going to happen. He’d seen it before. It wasn’t just showing off for Jill. He knew—and Keith knew—that was part of it. It was also that Keith was a fanatic about realism. If anything death-defying needed to be done for one of his parts, he wanted to do it. Carl always had the devil’s own time arguing him out of it.

He was doing his best this time.

Finally Keith played his final card. “It will be a better movie. I can do it. I need to do it.” He faced Garrison squarely. “I’ll take full responsibility.”

Garrison beamed. “Well, in that case . . .”

Carl muttered, but Garrison was convinced.

Jill wasn’t, Luke could tell. “Are you sure about this?” she asked, her gray eyes looking worriedly into Keith’s.

“ ’Course I’m sure.” He brushed her lips with his. “Piece o’ cake,” he added. He took the flotation vest, stripped off his shirt and began to put it on.

Luke watched for a moment, felt his fists clench, then deliberately loosened them. He turned to help Carl get the canoe ready, then waited while Carl saw that the last of the safety lines were rigged.

Jill left Keith and followed Carl. “Are you sure there are enough? Is he safe?”

“As safe as I can make him,” Carl said grimly.

Keith laughed and came after her, then kissed her again. “Don’t worry about me. I’m the bread and butter around here. They won’t let me drown!”

“But—”

“It’s all right, Jilly,” he insisted. “Better me than Luke here.” He slanted a grin at Luke. “He was partying a little too much last night.”

“I was not!”

“Besides—” Keith grinned “—don’t you know, cowboys can’t swim!”

“I can so,” Luke retorted.

“Not like I can. Who was California all-state breast stroke champ in high school?”

Luke managed a smile at that. “Breast stroke?” He waggled his eyebrows. “You never told me that had anything to do with swimming.”

Keith laughed easily. “Hey, not in front of my lady.” He touched Jill’s cheek. “Relax, hon, I’ll be fine. Besides, it’ll be a dynamite shot, you’ll see. And everybody will be able to see that it’s really me.”

“They won’t care.”

“But I care.”

Luke saw their gazes catch and lock.

Finally Jill tore her eyes away from Keith and found Luke, her gaze beseeching. “Can’t you stop him?”

Can’t you stop him?

He’d asked himself that time and again.

Could he have?

He didn’t know. Maybe—if he’d argued more. Maybe if he had, he would have won. God knew he should have tried. The fact was, he hadn’t.

He’d kept his mouth shut and let Keith do the gag himself.

He’d have done it, pounding headache and roiling stomach and all, if Keith hadn’t stepped in.

It was his job. But Keith was right about one thing: he wasn’t a great swimmer. Not anywhere near as good as Keith. But if he did it right, he knew he wouldn’t have to swim. He only had to launch the canoe, escape the Indians who were shooting arrows at him, and navigate the white water until he was around the bend in the river where Carl’s men were standing by to fish him out.

But Keith had pulled rank. “I’m the boss, remember,” he said, then grinned. “C’mon, Carl, let’s do it!”

Luke helped finish rigging the safety lines, then tossed a neon-colored volleyball into the current half a dozen times so they could figure out the best angles. Then it was Keith’s turn.

“Outta my way, man,” Keith said. He winked at Jill and headed up the draw, leaving Luke standing beside her on the riverbank. She glanced at Luke, then turned her gaze back to the river.

So did Luke. He edged away.

The scene went like clockwork—Keith’s mad scramble down the draw, shoving of the canoe and leaping into it, his desperate paddling as the Indians swarmed down him, only to halt at the river’s edge as the canoe shot away into the surging water, past the first set of rocks, over the rapids, downriver.

And then, suddenly, the canoe slewed sideways against the rocks. It plunged, tipped and flipped Keith into the water.

“Keith!” Jill swallowed her scream, pressing her hand to her mouth, watching frantically, waiting for him to surface. And when he didn’t immediately, she turned to Luke, horrified, looking to him for help.

“He’ll be fine,” Luke said gruffly. “He’s got a vest. He’ll be up in a sec. Just got to get his bearings.”

This was Keith, after all. Keith, the all-state swimmer. Keith the champ. Keith who could do damn near everything Luke could do in the way of stunts—and when it came to water, could do them better. He was only showing off, trying to prove that it was a good thing he was doing it, not Luke.

“Don’t worry,” he said to Jill.

But when seconds turned into a minute, then two, and there was still no sign of Keith’s dark head, his own determined calm disintegrated. Panic bubbled up.

He started toward the river, first walking, then running, then wading frantically out into the water where he’d last seen his friend.

“Keith! God damn it, Keith!” He stumbled through the water, lost his footing, fell, scrambled up again. “Keith!”

Then Carl was beside him, too, looking feverishly around, muttering. “Damn him. If this is a joke . . .”

Luke knew what he meant. It wouldn’t have been beyond him. He looked up toward the river bank, frantically hoping to see his friend sitting on a rock laughing at them.

He saw instead Jill’s white, stricken face. He turned back to the river and plunged on.

He didn’t find Keith.

Carl didn’t find Keith.

Neither did the grip who pulled out the canoe downstream half an hour later. Nor any of the hundreds of searchers who scoured the river for the rest of the day and evening.

They didn’t find his body until the following morning a mile downriver.

Luke had to go and identify him.

“We know who it is,” the coroner apologized. “It’s just a technicality.”

It wasn’t a technicality to Luke, not when he had to stand there and stare down into the dark, still, silent face of his friend. His ears rang. His throat closed. He felt himself start to shake.

“One of his boots was badly scraped,” the coroner was saying matter-of-factly. “I figure that’s what held him down. It must have got stuck between two submerged rocks and he couldn’t get out.”

Luke wasn’t looking at the boot. He was looking at the bloody raw tips of Keith’s fingers—mute testimony to his friend’s desperate futile struggle to free himself.

But if seeing Keith was hard, being the one to have to tell Jillian what she already knew was worse.

And worst of all was hearing from her what he already knew himself.

She didn’t say anything for a moment, just stared into the distance. And then in almost toneless voice, she spoke. “He was doing your job,” she said, and her gaze shifted so that she looked squarely at him, her eyes bright with pain and unshed tears. “You were supposed to be out there, not him.”

She wasn’t telling him anything he hadn’t already told himself. And all the guilt he’d had over the feelings he’d tried so long to hide were nothing compared to this.

No, they hadn’t spoken at Keith’s funeral.

What else had there been to say?

What was there to say now? Luke wondered as he rode slowly down toward his camp.

He tugged off his hat and raked a hand through damp hair, trying to muster what strength he had left. God knew he’d need it.

She was every bit as beautiful and desirable as she’d ever been. And she had every right to hate his guts.

He rode up almost to where she stood, but he didn’t dismount. It wasn’t polite not to. He knew that. He also knew he needed every advantage he could get. “Jillian.” His voice sounded rusty to his ears.

She looked up at him and he feared for a moment that she might manage a smile. He was grateful when her lips stopped short of it.

“Luke.”

He swallowed, waiting, expecting her to say why she’d come, but she didn’t. She just looked at him. He felt like pond scum. Like cow dung. So he did what he’d always done when he’d been around her before—he resorted to sarcasm.

“Don’t tell me,” he said gruffly, “you were in the neighborhood.”

Then he turned his horse and swung off, managing to keep his back to her the whole time. He walked his horse toward the pasture where he kept his mounts, hoping against hope that she would somehow vanish if he pretended she wasn’t there.

She followed him. “I’ve been looking for you.”

He didn’t ask why. Instead he got a comb out of the saddle bag, loosened the cinch from his horse, then eased off the saddle and put it over the fence. He moved with the same focused deliberation he used when he was trying to forget the dream. He laid the saddle blanket over the saddle, then took off the bridle, put on a halter, and began to brush down his horse.

Jill was so close he could almost feel the heat of her breath against his sweat-soaked shirt. He inched away.

“You haven’t been exactly easy to find.”

“Didn’t intend to be.” He didn’t look at her. He kept currying the horse, just as if he did it every night. He reckoned the animal must be amazed at the attention.

“No one knew where to find you.”

“Somebody did,” he pointed out. “You’re here.”

“A last shot. And it was pure luck.”

“Is that what it is?” he said bitterly.

“I think so.” Her voice was quiet.

“How were you so lucky?” He twisted the word. He couldn’t help it. God knew the luck wasn’t his.

“I decided to come back to where you and Keith met in the first place. And, well, I ran into a friend of yours.”

Luke had thought his friends would have known better than to betray his whereabouts. “Who?”

“Paco.”

Luke smothered a groan. “I might’ve known.”

“He’s a lovely little boy,” Jill said quickly, defensively almost.

“He makes Machiavelli look like Little Bo-Peep.”

She ventured a laugh and tossed a lock of hair away from her face. “He’s delightful. A regular charmer.” She was smiling, but as Luke turned, her smile faded. “He knows every movie Keith ever made.”

His jaw tightened. “I know.” He brushed past her and opened the gate so the horse could go into the pasture. Then he shut it again before he turned back to ask roughly, “So, why were you looking? What do you want?”

“To . . . apologize.”

“Apologize?” He stared at her, dumbfounded.

She nodded. “Apologize,” she repeated firmly. “For what I said to you . . . to you . . . that day . . . the day I . . . the day you . . .”

“I know which day!” Did she think he’d ever forget?

“I know I just made it worse for you. I wanted to say I’m sorry. I was . . . overwrought.”

“You were right.”

“No.”

He jammed his hands into his pockets and stared out into the distance. “Yes. If I’d been doing my job, Keith wouldn’t be dead.”

“Keith liked to do his own stunts. It was his choice.”

“That’s no excuse. I should’ve told him—”

“Telling Keith never did any good at all, and you know it. Keith could talk his way around anyone. Even you,” she added, giving him a level look. “You’d have had to knock him down and tie him up to have kept him out of that canoe.”

“Then I should have,” Luke said stubbornly. He kicked at the dirt with the toe of his scuffed boot. “Look,” he said finally, “it was nice of you to drop by and apologize . . .” He still couldn’t quite say the word with equanimity. “I appreciate it. Now it’s gettin’ late. It’s gonna be dark before long and if you’re gonna get down to the road before nightfall, you’d better get movin’.”

“Luke—”

But he didn’t want to hear any more. Couldn’t listen to any more. He and Jillian Crane had never talked to each other. They didn’t need to start now.

“Come on. I’ll see you down.” He whistled up the horses and they trotted his way, the bay gelding eagerly nosing at his shirt pocket for the sugar he knew Luke kept there.

Aware that she was watching, he frowned and pushed the bay’s head away, got nosed again and finally gave in and fed him a sugar cube. Then he slipped the halter over the bay’s head and led him out of the pasture.

“Shut the gate,” he said over his shoulder and moved to saddle the horse.

She did. “So,” she said after a moment, “am I forgiven?”

He shot her a quick glance, then shrugged. “Of course.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I—”

Luke wheeled around. “Look, what you said, I deserved. If you want me to forgive you, fine. You’re forgiven. But it doesn’t change a damn thing!”

“Because you haven’t forgiven yourself,” she said quietly.

“No, I haven’t. You’re right about that.” His hands clenched against the saddle. He bent his head. He would never be able to forgive himself as long as he lived.

“You ought to, Luke,” she said gently.

“I don’t think so.”

“Yes, you should. And you should stop hiding out up here and—”

“I’m not hiding out!”

“No one knew where you were.”

“Paco did,” he reminded her. “So do most of the people in town.”

“But they wouldn’t tell me. Did you ask them not to?”

He shrugged irritably. “Didn’t want to be bothered. Not that I reckon a lot of people would want to know,” he added gruffly.

“I did. Carl would.”

“No.” Next to Jill, the last person he wanted to see was Carl, the man who had hired Luke in the first place and who had come to be the closest thing to a father Luke had had in years. He’d done a lot of growing up under Carl’s watchful, yet tolerant eye.

He didn’t want to see the look in Carl’s eyes now. “Really, Luke—”

“No! And you’d damned well better not tell him where I am. Now come on. It’s gettin’ dark. You don’t want to be trekking down the mountain in the dark.”

“I could stay.”

“The hell you could!” He felt his face burn. He couldn’t believe she’d suggested it!

“We shared a house . . . before.”

Luke’s jaw tightened and his fury grew as he remembered those two weekends when Keith had sent him with Jill up to his house in Big Bear in the hopes that the paparazzi would follow them and give Keith some space.

“A little obscurity, privacy, heaven,” Keith had said when he’d asked Luke to do it.

Heaven, yes. But in its own way, hell, too. Luke remembered only too well what had happened the last time they were there—those few brief moments when desire had defeated him, when he’d forgotten who she was, who he was, how wrong anything between them would be.

Anger and guilt swamped him even now. “Is that what this is all about? You looking to pick up where we left off, maybe? Are you horny, honey?”

She slapped his face.

They stared at each other. Then Luke raised a hand to touch his stinging cheek while she pressed her fingers against her mouth and looked at him, stricken. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He turned away. “You shouldn’t be. You should have done it then.”

And he strode quickly down to where she’d left her horse. It was Jimmy Kline’s sorrel she had ridden. He wondered how she’d managed that. But then Jillian had always had a way about her, a way that had made most of the world fall at her feet—especially grown men who should have damn well known better.

“How’d you get Kline’s horse?” he demanded.

“Paco introduced us. They were a little less eager to let me know where you were,” she admitted. “But Paco convinced them.”

“I’ll bet,” he said grimly. Well, the deed was done. Now he just wanted her gone. “At least you knew enough to loosen the cinch,” he grunted.

“Jimmy told me to.”

“Good ol’ Jimmy,” he said under his breath. He turned to her. “Get on.” He swung easily into the bay’s saddle. “Let’s go.” He started down the trail looking back, wanting to get far enough ahead so that they wouldn’t have to talk.

But Jill caught up with him. “I didn’t just come to apologize. And I didn’t come for what else you implied,” she said flatly. “I came because I need your help. I’m working on a book. A biography. Of Keith.”

He didn’t even look at her. He just kept riding, giving no sign that he’d even heard, wishing he hadn’t. It didn’t stop her.

“I’ve been working on it for the past year,” she went on. “I’ve got almost all the interviewing done. I’ve talked to everyone who ever meant anything to Keith. Teachers, friends, relatives, directors, producers, other actors. Everyone, that is, except . . .” She didn’t have to finish.

“No.” God, no.

“I know you think it would be painful to talk about it,” she said urgently. “All right, it is painful. But it also helps, Luke, believe me.” She urged the sorrel forward until she rode beside him. “I didn’t want to do it either. But it gave me some perspective.”

“I’ve got all the perspective I need.” It was over. Past. And he couldn’t talk about it. Couldn’t relive it. Not with her. He’d never survive.

He urged his horse on, speeding up, keeping far enough ahead of her all the way down to the road so that she would have had to shout for him to hear. Finally they reached the next gate. “Just follow the trail on down. Another half mile and you’ll see the ranch house. You can’t miss it.” He turned his horse.

“Luke, listen—”

“Good-bye, Jill.” His voice was hard and flat. He didn’t look back.

End of Excerpt

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

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April 27, 2016

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