The Tanner Brothers, Book 3

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The Tanner Brothers, Book 3
Release Date:

May 24, 2016

More From Anne →

Cowboys Don’t Stay

by

Anne McAllister

All he got for Christmas…

Rodeo cowboy Noah Tanner spent his life going down the road. He never stopped. He never stayed –until rehab from an accident stuck him in Laramie, Wyoming over the holidays.

So, fine. He’d stay with Tess. Who better to spend Christmas with than the gorgeous nurse who’d patched him up once before?

Once Tess Montgomery had loved Noah. She still had him to thank for her greatest gift — Susannah — the child Noah never knew he had.
Then Noah met Susannah, and his world changed. But could a footloose cowboy settle down? Be a dad? Show the only woman he’d ever loved that this time he was here to stay?

Or was it too late? Would Tess ever trust him with her heart again?

Enjoy an Excerpt →

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He wasn’t dead.

At least that’s what they told him.

They were probably right. Being dead, Noah figured, wouldn’t hurt quite so much. Every bone, every muscle—hell, every hair on his head—hurt like sin.

He mustered all his strength and shifted his position in the bed about an inch. At least there was nothing wrong with his memory. He knew exactly what had happened. He could still see it in his mind’s eye—the truck trailer slapping into the van like a batting champ ripping into a fast ball. And Noah felt like the cover, torn right off the ball.

He couldn’t believe he’d really ridden nine out of ten NFR broncs just last week. It didn’t seem possible. At the moment lifting his head didn’t seem possible.

At least he could breathe. He could remember a time—just when was a little hazy, though—when even getting air seemed an iffy proposition.

It was because of his collapsed lung, he remembered them telling him. And that was because of his four broken ribs. And they were the result of that trailer playing baseball with the van, whacking him and Taggart clear out of the park.

Where the hell was Taggart? Noah couldn’t remember having seen him since the accident, not since the paramedics had arrived and removed his friend’s unconscious body from the van.

And that had been—when? He didn’t know. He didn’t know where he was—some hospital? Laramie? Cheyenne?—or how long he’d been here. Hell, and he’d thought his memory was all right?

He didn’t know anything!

“Taggart!” Noah struggled to sit up. All his muscles screamed.

“Here now. It’s all right.” The voice came from the left. It was soft, soothing. Gentle. Female. “It’s okay, Noah. It’s okay.”

At the sound of his name, Noah tried to turn his head. Other muscles protested. He groaned and his head fell back against the pillow.

“Your friend’s all right. Take it easy,” the voice said again, and a nurse came into his range of vision. A slender nurse in a starchy white uniform. A nurse with oddly familiar wide green eyes and dark brown hair that was pulled back into a long braid. An even longer braid than he remembered.

Noah stared, disbelieving.

“T-Tess?” It took him a minute to find enough air to form her name.

“Hello, Noah.”

He smiled weakly and a little wryly. “What is this? Déjà vu?”

A faint smile crossed her face. “Not quite.” Her voice was soft, but her tone was neutral, professional. That wasn’t the way it had been . . . how long ago? Seven years? Eight?

Even though, of course, it was how they had met. She’d been studying to become a nurse and was doing a practicum in the hospital where he ended up after getting hung up and kicked and concussed at the Laramie rodeo. He’d barely regained consciousness when his buddies had left him and headed down the road again. The next day, he’d been well enough to leave but had nowhere to go.

After a moment’s indecision which was reflected clearly on her face, the dark-haired, starry-eyed nursing student he’d flirted with since they’d carried him into the hospital had agreed to take him home.

She wasn’t the sort of girl he normally hung around with. The brash, eager “buckle bunnies” who generally followed him around were a far cry from the serious girl who had told him her name was Tess Montgomery.

Tess Montgomery had been thin and coltish, shy, yet surprisingly eager to please. She had also been the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

She still was. But there was no eagerness about her now, nor shyness either, only a pleasant smile and cool, professional competence.

She was Tess Montgomery, R.N.—the first and last woman with whom he’d had what could even remotely be called “an affair.” Tess Montgomery—one of the many women he’d loved and left. Tess Montgomery—the only woman who’d ever cried when he’d walked out the door.

God had one heck of a sense of humor, was all Noah could think.

What Tess thought, he didn’t know. She was all business as she checked the tube in his chest that they’d put in when they’d reinflated his lung. When she was done, she listened with a stethoscope. He opened his mouth to say something.

She popped a thermometer in.

“Tess—”

“Shh.” She moved to the foot of the bed and tapped away on her computer. He watched her. She used to smile at him, then, if he winked, look quickly away. Today there were no smiles—not after that first meant-to-be-reassuring one. He was just another patient now. In fact he was probably worse. Maybe she hated him.

Naw, she couldn’t. Could she? He wondered if he ought to ask. It didn’t seem like the best place to start a conversation.

“Is Taggart—?”

“He’s fine and he’s right down the hall. Hush.” She went back to tapping, ignoring him once more.

Noah scowled. “What’s the matter with him?”

She glared. “He’s doing fine,” she repeated.

“He was unconscious!”

“Noah—”

“Tell me, damn it.”

“I’ll tell you,” Tess said with exaggerated patience, “if you let me finish this.” And she closed her own mouth in a firm line, waiting until he slumped back against his pillows and nodded his acquiescence. Then she nodded, satisfied. And went back to typing. After what seemed as if she had written the Wyoming equivalent of War and Peace, she looked up again. “Your friend has a broken femur, two cracked ribs and a concussion. And yes, he stayed unconscious for most of yesterday, but he’s awake now and quite coherent. More than you’ve been.”

Noah frowned. How long had he been out of it, then? “When was it, th’accident, I mean?”

“Yesterday afternoon. It’s now almost 3:00 p.m. Tuesday.”

“I want to see him.”

“I’m sure you do.”

He tried to sit up.

Tess stepped smartly around to the side of the bed and looked down at him. “Don’t make me call Nurse Long Needle, Noah.”

“Nurse Long Needle?” Noah arched a sceptical brow.

“She’s Cheyenne.”

He didn’t believe a word of it. “Behave, you mean?”

“Behave,” Tess agreed.

Noah looked down at his aching body. His right shoulder and elbow were strapped against his torso. His ribs weren’t taped, but they weren’t exactly eager to go anywhere. He had a tube in his chest. His knee was immobilized in ice. There was an IV running from his left hand to a bag hanging by the bed. “I can’t do anything else,” he grumbled. “I want to see Taggart.”

“All in good time.”

“Now is a good time.”

“Well, then, just hop right up and go down the hall. Room 218.”

“Sarcasm, Tess?”

“Common sense, Noah.”

He considered that, considered how far away the door was, considered how far away the floor was for that matter. “You’re probably right,” he muttered after a moment. “So, when can I see him?”

“A day or so. Ask your doctor.”

“Who is my doctor?” Hell, there was a whole world of stuff he didn’t know.

“Dr. Alvarez for your lung. Dr. MacGuinness for your ribs and your knee and your elbow and shoulder.”

“Do I have anything that isn’t under doctor’s care?” he asked wryly.

Tess smiled. “Not much. You can have a pain pill if you want one. It’s that time.”

“Don’t need one,” he lied.

“Suit yourself.” Tess started toward the door.

“Tess!” He levered himself up as far as he could. It felt like the top of his head was going to come off.

She turned, one hand on the doorjamb. Her braid, he could see now, reached past the middle of her back. He remembered how her hair had looked fanned out against the white sheet. He remembered how soft it had felt to his touch. He swallowed.

“Are you . . . mad at me?”

She stared at him. Then, “Mad?” Tess said. “No.” She shook her head slowly. Her eyes met his for one long moment before her gaze flickered down briefly, then came up to meet his again. A faint smile touched the corners of her mouth. “Actually, Noah, I owe you a debt of gratitude.”

There. She’d seen him—conscious and coherent this time—and she’d escaped unscathed. She’d even managed to be professional and polite.

It didn’t matter that her hands were shaking now as she walked down the hall back to the nurses’ station. It didn’t matter that her breakfast was doing somersaults in her stomach and that there was a lump the size of a Rocky Mountain in her throat.

He didn’t know that. And that was what mattered—that and that she manage to keep her indifference firmly in place until Noah Tanner was once more out of her life.

“What’s the matter?” Nita LongReach asked her. “You look like you’ve gone ten rounds with a ghost.”

Tess shook her head and managed a wan smile. “Just hungry,” she lied, knowing full well she’d upchuck if she even caught a whiff of a lunch tray right now. “I didn’t eat lunch.”

Nita grunted. “You work too hard.”

“We all work too hard.”

“But you more than most. You need a break. A vacation. A little joy in your life.”

“I have a little joy in my life,” Tess said. Her hands trembled less now. She wiped her palms surreptitiously on the sides of her white slacks.

“Besides Susannah,” Nita said patiently. “You need more than a daughter and a job that takes all your time.”

“Get a life, you mean?”

Nita grinned. “Get a man.”

“No, thanks.” Tess would have been far more emphatic than that if she thought Nita wouldn’t accuse her of over-reacting. She picked up her computer and tapped on it. It had been easier to deflect attention when there were actual paper charts to pretend to be preoccupied with.

“Derek’s interested.” It hadn’t gone unnoticed that weedy, earnest Derek Mallon, the new ob-gyn resident, seemed to be popping up everywhere Tess Montgomery went. “Either that or he’s lost an awful lot of the time.” Nita giggled. “Why else would he end up in orthopedics so often?”

“Maybe he’s interested in you.”

“I’m twenty years older than he is and fifty pounds heavier.”

“Love is blind,” Tess said blithely. It was also stupid and dangerous to the heart, but she wasn’t saying that.

“Well, if you don’t want Derek, there’re other fish in the sea. Want a cowboy?”

“What?” Tess almost dropped her computer.

Nita, noticing, looked speculative. “I’m not selling them, if that’s what you’re worried about. I just thought . . . what about either of those two rodeo cowboys? Handsome devils, both of ’em. They’re a bit battered at the moment, but when the bruising fades . . .”

“No,” Tess said flatly. “I don’t want a cowboy.” Never again.

A debt of gratitude?

The words tumbled around in Noah’s head, mocking him. What the hell did that mean?

Because he’d destroyed her childish fantasies? Because he’d loved her and left her? Because he’d squashed her young girl’s dreams and taught her what men were really like?

Or was she just being sarcastic?

Probably. Without a doubt he deserved it.

He took the pain pill after all. And four hours later another. And then another.

They muddled his mind as much as they dulled his pain. He dozed and dreamed, and in his mind he saw a million horses, a million rides, a million miles of road . . . and a million memories of Tess.

“Do you take in strays?” he’d asked her, only half-joking, the day he was going to be discharged.

Her green eyes had widened perceptibly. She’d swallowed, then blinked. Then a shy smile had lit her face. “I believe I could.”

So she had. He was broke and hungry and his head still ached. She’d been kind, gentle, caring. She’d fussed over him with a tenderness he hadn’t experienced since his mother had died when he was four.

Maybe it was the care, maybe it was the concussion. Whatever it was, she tapped a side of Noah that had lain dormant so many years he’d totally forgotten it was there. He’d grown gentle, too, teasing her tenderly, smiling at her, laughing with her. Basking in the comfort of her concern.

He’d been on the road, without a family, for so long, that all this TLC she had lavished on him turned his head. It was wonderful. The picnics she took him on were fun. The hikes in the mountains and swims at the lake were fantastic.

But he wanted more. He was plagued with a young man’s needs, a young man’s lusts. And not too many days passed before Tess, overcoming her initial shyness, had satisfied them—had satisfied him.

For two weeks she welcomed him into her life, into her arms, into her bed. She gave him days of joy and nights of love.

Sometimes, lying next to her at night, he dreamed that he could have this paradise forever.

In the clear light of day, he knew it couldn’t last.

He was a rodeo bronc rider, a close-to-broke rodeo bronc rider. And the only way he could change that was to get on down the road to more rodeos and leave Tess Montgomery behind.

Still, when his buddies came back on their way to Cheyenne to pick him up later that month, he’d felt a momentary pang at the thought. From the look on her face when he came out of the bedroom carrying his duffel bag and his saddle, Tess felt more than that.

“You’re leaving?” she’d said, her face going pale as she looked up from the dishes she was washing.

“Got to. They’re waiting.”

“I know, but—” she picked up a towel and dried her hands as she came toward him. “I thought—When will you be back?”

“Dunno.” He shrugged and gave her his best rakish grin. “You know us rodeo cowboys. Always goin’ down the road. Never stayin’ in one place more than a night or two.”

“You stayed here two weeks.” She was looking like a wounded doe.

“’Cause I was hurt.”

“And now you’re well.” He heard a faint bitterness in her voice as she turned away to stare out the window.

He dropped the duffel bag and saddle and jammed his hands into his pockets. “Now I’m well,” he agreed. “Thanks to you,” he added gently, wishing she would smile.

She didn’t. Her fingers knotted in front of her.

He yanked a hand out of his pocket and touched her arm. She stiffened.

“Come on, Tess. Don’t be like this. You knew I was goin’.”

“Did I?” He heard the ache in her words and tried to ignore it.

“Course you did. It’s what I do, for Lord’s sake. I got to. I never said I’d stay!”

She didn’t look at him, didn’t speak.

Outside Taggart yelled, “Hey, Noah, hurry it up!”

“See? I gotta—” He stared at her helplessly.

She shook him off. “Fine. Go.” Noah saw a tear slip down her cheek, then another. She swiped them angrily away, then hugged her arms against her breasts. “They’re waiting for you.”

Damn it, he hated it when women cried! And over him! He couldn’t believe it. He gripped her arm again, pulling her around, trying to make her look at him. “Look, Tess. I didn’t mean for this to happen. You know that. I never said . . . I never made any promises, did I? Did I?”

She looked at him then. It didn’t help.

“I didn’t,” he reiterated desperately. “I can’t. I got nothin’ to give you.”

“Love.”

Love? It couldn’t be so simple. What about jobs? Money? Hopes? Dreams?

His hesitation was enough. Tess jerked out of his grasp and spun away from him. “Go on. Go away!”

But her misery was so clear he couldn’t seem to move. “I can’t—I need—!”

“Well, I don’t!” She jerked the door open and stood waiting, glaring at him. “I said, go on!”

Noah’s fingers clenched. His lips pressed into a tight line. “Fine,” he said heavily after a moment. “I’m going.” He yanked up the saddle and duffel bag and started past her. She was too close, too tempting. He leaned toward her and brushed a hard kiss across her lips, then turned once more on the top step. “I’ll call you.”

“No.”

“I’ll call you,” he said firmly.

But he almost hadn’t.

“Don’t,” Taggart had counseled. “It isn’t fair. You don’t want to keep her danglin’, do you?”

A part of Noah did want to. The selfish part. The part that woke up several times a night after he’d left her—missing her, longing for her laugh, for her smile, for the gentle way she touched him. The part that seemed always to be looking for her sweet, generous nature in every girl who flirted with him or teased him or knocked on his motel room door.

But none of them was Tess. And Tess was the only one he hankered after. The only one he lay awake at night and wished for.

But Taggart was right. What could he offer her, besides the occasional night when he was passing through?

There was no point even thinking about it. He called her in mid-September finally to tell her so.

“Noah?” she’d said when she heard his voice. “Oh, Noah!”

She sounded so pathetically happy to get his call, he’d felt like a heel for dragging it out this long. “Hi, Tess.” He made himself sound cheerful, upbeat.

“Are you in town?”

“I’m in California. I been runnin’ all over. You know what it’s like.”

“I guess,” she said vaguely. “When are you coming?”

He took a deep breath. “I’m not.”

“Not? At all?” Her voice was suddenly faint, as if he’d knocked the wind right out of her. All the eagerness he’d heard just moments before was gone.

He wanted desperately to put it back. He didn’t dare. “Not at all,” he said firmly. “I just . . . just didn’t want to leave you wondering what had happened to me.” He paused. “And I said I’d call so . . . here I am.”

There was such a long pause, he thought the connection might’ve dropped. Then finally she said, “Yes, well, thank you.” And her voice was composed, polite. Very formal. “It was kind of you to let me know.”

Kind? Not hardly. He wished he could think of something else to say, something that would make her feel better, make her know that this was for her own good, that she deserved a far better man than him. Somehow he didn’t think she’d appreciate a testimonial.

“You . . . been all right?” he asked her at last.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Just fine.”

“Good. Good.” He hesitated. Then, “I, uh, gotta run. I’ll see—” he paused awkwardly “—no I guess I won’t.”

And he hadn’t.

Until Tuesday.

“He’s been asking for you,” Nita told Tess two days later when she came back from her day off.

Tess didn’t reply at once. She hung up her coat and shook the snowflakes from her hair, doing her best to feign indifference, though her heart had been beating faster for the past five days. She’d been desperate for a day off to regain her equilibrium, hoping it would be enough. It wasn’t. Damn Noah Tanner for being able to affect her this way still. “Who’s been asking?” she said finally, though she was sure she knew.

“The dark haired cowboy with the to-die-for blue eyes. He’s cuter than Derek, I’ll give you that. Surely you’ve noticed.”

“I can’t say that I have,” Tess lied. “How’s Mrs. Forrest this morning?”

“Mrs. Forrest went home yesterday. Here. Breakfast just came up. Why don’t you take around the trays? And—” Nita winked “—while you’re at it, check out those eyes.”

Tess grumbled, but took the cart full of trays. She knew all too well the mesmerizing power of Noah Tanner’s blue eyes. She prayed they’d be closed—that he’d be asleep.

He wasn’t.

“Hey, sunshine.” His voice sounded a little rusty, but as sexy as it ever had. It sent a shiver right down Tess’s spine. He was still lying down, but he smiled at her when she appeared.

“Noah.” She set his tray on the table.

“I figured maybe you were avoiding me, but Nita said you had the day off. I wanted to ask you, what’s the debt of gratitude for?”

Oh, hell. He would remember that. “I was just glad you called that day,” she said at last, “when you told me you weren’t coming back. It was helpful. Put an end to it.” She tried to look pleased and steady. Her heart was beating nineteen to the dozen.

Noah looked at her closely. “I didn’t want to give you false hopes.”

“I appreciate it,” she said as she moved back toward the door. At the time it had crushed her. When she had more perspective, she’d come to see he was right. She didn’t want a man who didn’t love her, who wouldn’t be there for her.

“Figured you’d find a lot better man than me. Did you?”

Almost at the door, she turned to look at him. “Did I what?”

His blue eyes were boring into her. “Find a better man? Marry him?”

She hesitated. “I’m not married,” she said at last.

Why the hell not?

If there was ever a woman who ought to be married it was Tess Montgomery. Even a died-in-the-wool drifter—especially a died-in-the-wool drifter—like Noah Tanner could see that!

She was a nester, right down to her toes. Even in the slapped-together one bedroom apartment she’d been living in, a place with as much inherent personality as a chicken coop, Tess Montgomery had created a home. And she’d wanted kids. She’d said so.

The men in Wyoming must be fools, he thought. Or eunuchs.

Or—hadn’t she married because of him?

He shouldn’t have dared to think any such thing. And he didn’t. Not really. Even he wasn’t that cocky.

But he couldn’t suppress a tiny grin as, deep down, some little bitty part of him couldn’t help wondering if it was so.

Taggart wasn’t a fool. Or a eunuch.

But even though he was even more bruised and battered looking than Noah was, not to mention tied to the bed with his right leg suspended in traction, when Noah finally got to visit his buddy two days later, he found himself wishing Taggart wasn’t quite so attractive to the opposite sex.

Or to Tess. Because he was if that heart-stopping smile she was wearing when she came into Taggart’s room was anything to go by.

“Good morning,” she said with a cheer Noah never heard when she came into his room.

And then she saw Noah sitting by the window and her smile faded.

Taggart who’d been complaining about hospitals and doctors and food and how he couldn’t wait to get out of here, took one look at Tess and his face lit up. “Hey, my favorite nurse!” He tried to shove himself up further in the bed.

Favorite nurse? What the hell did that mean?

“Don’t do that,” Tess said sharply to Taggart. “You’ll hurt yourself. Here. Let me help you.” She put an arm around Taggart’s shoulders and settled him back against the pillows, then raised the head of the bed a foot or so. “How’s that?”

“Great.” Taggart gave her another grin and blew her a kiss. “You’re my angel, aren’t you Tessie?”

Tessie? Noah’s jaw clamped shut tight.

“This pretty lady is the only thing that makes bein’ here tolerable,” Taggart said. “She takes good care of me, don’t you?”

“I try,” Tess said with a demure smile. “What do you need?”

“You got any more of that orange juice?”

“Of course.” And she vanished to get some.

“Wish they were all that sweet,” Taggart said to Noah after she’d brought them each a glass, given Taggart a smile, Noah a nod, and left again.

“She’s not that sweet to me,” Noah grumbled.

Taggart lifted an eyebrow. “I thought all the girls fell at your feet.”

“Not Tess. Not this time anyhow.”

“This time?”

“I was here before, remember? The time I got concussed ridin’ Maverick’s Dream.”

Taggart blinked, then stared. “Tess is her? The one you . . .”

Noah gave a single affirmative jerk of his head. Then he reached over and picked up a copy of the football magazine on Taggart’s bedside table, opening it and at least pretending to read.

“So are you still interested?” Taggart asked. He wasn’t talking about football.

Noah kept his eyes on the magazine. “She was a nice girl.”

“Still is.”

Noah looked up and gave his friend a hard look. “I can see that. But she’s not one to be fooling around with,” he said gruffly. “She deserves better.”

Taggart grinned. “You are still interested.”

“I’m not dead!”

“And thank God for that.” Taggart smiled, then said reflectively, “When I came around I didn’t know what had happened to you.”

“I saw you unconscious. I thought you’d bought the ranch. You looked like it,” Noah said, grateful for the change in subject.

“Bruised my pretty face,” Taggart agreed. He grimaced and glanced at his leg. “And did this.” They both stared in silent contemplation at the strapped up, plaster casted appendage.

“Good thing you aren’t ridin’ this week,” Noah said. “You might’ve had to turn him out.”

Taggart smiled, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Might’ve,” he agreed. “My folks are on their way down with Becky. I made ’em wait ’til I was half-way human. I didn’t want ’em to bring her at all, told ’em it’d scare her, seein’ me like this. But they said she’d be scared worse if they didn’t.”

Noah hadn’t thought about that, about what it meant to have someone depending on you to be well, to bring home the bacon. He’d called Tanner when he’d been coherent, long enough to tell his brother he’d been in a little accident and that he might not be there for a while. He down-played it because he didn’t want Tanner running down here worrying about him. Tanner had his own life—his own worries: a wife, three kids, a struggling ranch. He didn’t need to worry about his brother. Besides, he wasn’t depending on Noah.

No one was.

And a good thing, too, Noah thought now.

“You’ll be glad to see her,” he said with as much cheerful determination as he could muster.

“Yeah.” Taggart looked away and blinked rapidly. “I missed her damned Christmas program, though,” he said roughly.

“She understands.”

“I should’ve been there.”

“We tried.”

Taggart was staring out the window. “I’m gonna quit riding.”

“What!” It was a good thing he was sitting down, Noah thought, or he’d fallen right over.

“I’m retirin’. Goin’ home. Stayin’ home.” Taggart spelled it out for him.

“You’re just saying that ’cause you’re hurt. When you feel better you’ll change your mind.”

Taggart shook his head. “No. I won’t.”

“You can’t quit,” Noah said urgently. “What would you do? What can you do?” Riding bulls wasn’t a stepping stone to a lot of other careers any more than riding broncs was.

“I’ll think of something.”

“You can’t. You—”

“Shut up,” Taggart said as his gaze flicked suddenly from the window to a movement in the doorway. He straightened up against the pillows and pasted a smile on his face. “They’re here.”

And before Noah could ease his still stiff body around enough to see, Taggart’s parents appeared at his side, his gray-haired, tanned father smiling nervously, his thin, usually cheerful mother, looking desperate as they focused on their son. A second later a small body brushed against Noah’s arm. He turned his head to see Becky. He’d never seen Taggart’s daughter less than irrepressible, but now she looked haunted and her eyes wide with worry as she stared at the man in the bed.

“D-Daddy?”

Taggart held out a hand to her. “It’s okay, Beck’. I’m okay.”

For a moment she seemed to doubt him. But when he beckoned again, she flew at him, her face crumpling in tears as she scrabbled up onto the bed. Grimacing with pain and ignoring it at the same time, Taggart hauled his daughter up into his arms and hugged her tight.

“Oh, dear!”

Tess, standing in the doorway, looked momentarily horrified at Becky’s assault on the bed. Noah thought she was going to sweep Becky out of Taggart’s arms. Instead she scooped the little girl around and settled her down gently once more so that Taggart could still hold her but she wouldn’t hurt his leg.

“There.” Tess’s hand brushed lightly over the little girl’s fair hair. “Better?” she asked gently.

Becky, hugging her father, reached up and traced his bruised cheek lightly, then glanced once at Tess and nodded shyly. And Noah saw both of Taggart’s parents begin to breathe again. Gaye, his mother, even smiled as she moved toward the bed to take his hand and drop a kiss on his hair.

Will Jones didn’t move, but his smile broadened. “Thank God, son,” he said and Noah heard the emotion in his voice.

Watching them, Noah felt an ache inside that had nothing to do with his injuries. He looked away. “I’ll see you around,” he said as he got up.

At his words Taggart’s parents seemed to notice him all at once. “Oh, Noah!” Gaye said now. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he said, edging toward the door.

“You poor thing. You look worse than Taggart.”

Noah shook his head and kept moving.

“You don’t have to go,” Gaye protested.

“Naw. You go ahead an’ visit with Taggart. That’s what you came for.”

“But—”

Tess stepped between them. “He really does need to rest,” she said to Taggart’s mother. “He’s been up far too long.” And she stayed between them until Noah was out of the room. Then she followed him into the corridor.

He leaned against the wall, waiting for her. “Thanks.”

Tess tipped her head to look up at him and asked hesitant, “Don’t you like them?”

“Of course I like them. They’re Taggart’s parents.”

“Then why—?”

Noah cast around for words to express feelings he didn’t completely understand himself. “They aren’t my parents,” he said finally after a moment.

Tess’s expression softened. She must have remembered him having told her that his parents were dead, for the smile she gave him was one of gentle sadness. “Come on,” she said, taking his arm carefully. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

It wasn’t much. Just the barest hint of empathy. But even so, it was the only real hint he’d had so far that she still felt something for him.

He embroidered on it for hours. Days. He couldn’t help himself. He was going stir-crazy, lying around the damned hospital. The time he spent in physical therapy left him exhausted and shaking, but for the most part, hour by hour he felt stronger, healthier, and as if the walls were closing in on him. The only way out was in his mind.

And the only thing on his mind was Tess.

“How come you haven’t married?” he asked her one morning.

She was taking his blood pressure, but from the sudden color in her face, it was hers that ought to be being checked. “None of your business.”

“It could be.”

“No.” She brushed a lock of hair away from her face as she moved away.

He shoved himself up in the bed. “I’m not saying it is,” Noah said conversationally. “I’m only sayin’ it might be. If, for example, you were carryin’ a torch for me.”

“Carry a torch for you? Think again, cowboy!”

Noah grinned, then sobered. “It was good, Tess,” he said quietly.

She was tapping on her computer again. She didn’t look up.

“You were good. Too good for me. You still singin’ in the choir at church?” He remembered how amazed he’d been when she’d popped out of bed after the Saturday night they’d spent loving. He’d been even more amazed when she’d told him where she was going.

People he knew believed in God, all right. Some of them even went to church. But no one he knew went so far as to sing in a choir. He’d gone along and listened, enthralled at the pure sweet sound of Tess’s soprano solo. Later, when they’d curled together in bed, she’d sung once more, softly and sweetly, just for him. “Do you?” he persisted when she kept writing. “Still sing?”

“Yes.”

“Gonna sing at Christmas?”

She nodded.

“You’re staying here then? Not goin’ home?”

“This is my home.” He knew her parents were dead, too, but he remembered she had a sister somewhere in eastern Wyoming. “My family’s here now,” she told him. She finished making notes on his chart and started toward the door.

“Tess?”

She turned.

“Sing to me.”

She fled.

Call it arrogance.

Call it cockiness.

It was, sure enough.

Call it wrong-headed and selfish. It was that, too. And the product of too much time spent wishful thinking. But Noah couldn’t help it. He was convinced she still cared.

She might act calm and cool and professional. She might deny that he mattered to her at all. But if he didn’t, why did she avoid him, ignore him, then blush like a school girl when he reminded her of intimacies they’d shared?

She cared. And he wanted her to admit it. To him. To herself.

That was probably why he kissed her.

If there was any rational reason for it at all.

He sure to goodness didn’t plan it. He’d been sitting there, staring at the same damn four walls all the next morning, contemplating how he could get the doc to release him and how he was going to get to Tanner and Maggie’s when he did, when Tess came to take him to physical therapy.

She was brisk and bossy and she acted like he meant no more to her than old man Hardesty across the hall.

So he kissed her.

To make her angry? Probably. To make her respond? Definitely.

She was right there, holding him up, helping him move from the bed to the wheelchair. So close. So impersonal.

And so he kissed her.

It was a hungry kiss. A demanding kiss. A kiss that sought to resurrect memories that eight years had been doing their best to erase. And the moment that his lips touched hers, the eight years vanished just like that. It might have been yesterday. Hell, it felt like yesterday.

He’d kissed a lot of women in the past eight years. None of them kissed with the same sweet hunger as Tess Montgomery.

Until at least, she realized that she was kissing him back. Then she jerked away, her face scarlet, her breasts heaving beneath her uniform. She gave him a shove that sent him back flat on the bed.

“Damn you, Noah Tanner!” She spun around and fled the room.

Noah, ribs aching, knee throbbing, shoulder pounding, lay back and touched his lips and grinned.

End of Excerpt

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

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May 24, 2016

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