“I guess hell just froze over.” Sheriff Caleb McCall whistled low and long.
He leaned against his SUV with his arms crossed over his chest. The vehicle blocked the road as the hundreds of head of McCall cattle crossed behind him. Their hooves shook the ground, kicking up dust. And their moos and bellyaching pierced the afternoon air in a strange symphony.
Good beat. Can’t dance to it.
If he were out on the range, he’d bet one of his brothers or the crew would add lyrics to the rhythmic noise. The cowboys were riding sporadically along the wide line, keeping the large frisky animals in place and headed to the fresh field for hearty grazing alongside the creek.
Everything depended on everyone doing their part, even him, when it came to pulling off a successful season for their family. No matter the cost, they’d get this done and keep their beloved Gramps steady and on course and the ranch solvent.
Not too much to ask, right? There was always something throwing a wrench in their plans though…
But it was the dot of red in the distance, growing bigger as it drew closer, that sent shock rippling through his mind and body. There was only one vehicle like that in all of Honor, Texas and around these parts.
It can’t be. She swore she’d never step foot back in this town again.
The topless red Jeep approached, getting closer, and then reducing speed. Finally, the brakes squeaked to a halt a few yards away. Music blared from the radio and then suddenly silence followed. The sole occupant gripped the steering wheel. Even from here, he could tell her knuckles were white.
Her blonde hair pulled up high in a ponytail revealed lighter streaks. She tucked the ends of the long bang behind her right ear now before she returned her hands—ringless—on the top of the steering wheel.
Caleb shoved away from his official vehicle nestled in the shade of an overhanging oak and walked out in to the brilliant morning sunshine and then around to her driver’s side. With a cursory look, he took in her form-fitting, powder blue tank top and denim shorts.
Look away from her gorgeous legs, McCall. And her skin, light tan and a lot of it showing.
Turning her head slowly, she gazed at him. That was, he assumed she did, since he couldn’t see her eyes behind the reflective sunglasses. He could see himself—worse for wear pulling extra duty by helping another rancher, this one his Gramps—in them and wondered what she was thinking right now.
“Well, if it isn’t little Jenny Wentworth.” His gut coiled. She wasn’t so little anymore.
When had she grown up? Three long years away from Honor had turned her from cute and adorable to a very beautiful woman—slightly taller and with more curves.
He suppressed the groan bubbling in his throat. She’d always been pretty, but she’d turned into a real stunner. And he wasn’t paying much attention. Yeah, right!
And her light, lingering perfume tickled his senses. A very welcome change from the strong cattle scent hanging in the air.
“Sheriff. Got some bad cows here?” Her lip twitched up at the corner.
A puff of a chuckle forced its way out. “Misdemeanors.” He nodded to the stream of feisty beasts still crossing. “Maybe even some felons in there, too.”
“Ah, trespassing, at the least. Head butting? Spitting? That fight club stuff? Smuggling contraband?”
He grinned. “Sounds like you know the lingo all too well.”
“Hanging around you and Sonny growing up, who wouldn’t?” She shook her head, her smile fading. “Heard from your best friend lately?”
Something hard and sharp bucked in his chest. “Last week, I think.” He shoved back his cowboy hat, trying to recall the brief meeting at the general store in town. “Been busy with lending an extra hand at the ranch. I could use his help.”
“Not answering the house phone.”
“So, he doesn’t even know you’re back? For how long this time?” It came out harsher than he intended.
But he couldn’t retract it; he waited for her to respond. She popped in and out of town over the last seven years since graduating from high school—in between getting hurt.
The tension bracketed her mouth. “What? Didn’t you know it’s every girl’s dream to get dumped at the altar. Twice.” Pain throbbed in her voice.
“Bucket list, huh? Looks like you can cross those off now.” What else could he say that no one else hadn’t yet?
“Good one, McCall. Turning over a new leaf. Starting fresh.”
“Care to share?” He nodded to the trail of cattle more than a mile long. “Got plenty of time.”
She groaned, shaking her head. “Why me?” Leaning forward, she shut down the engine and then slowly unbuckled her seat belt. “Mind?” She nodded to how close he stood.
He backed up, but held open the door for her.
Her blue boots hit the dirt road and she rose, half stretching. She made noises and sighs.
His blood pressure went up a few degrees. Hell, she grew up mighty fine!
Jenny turned quickly, catching him. Her jaw went slack. “Now, sheriff, what would your best friend say if he found you staring at his little sister like that?”
“Not much, I imagine. Fists would fly, though.”
Laughter came quick and easy. She slid the glasses up to really look at him.
Caleb sucked in a sharp breath. Her eyes—light blue and striking—nailed him. Always had. Always would.
Expecting a frosty glare, he shook when he took in the bruised, wounded look instead.
He’d seen it before over the years when her daddy drank, later when he died from it, and then when her brother took up drinking—a family curse passed down on the male side.
His gut clenched now just like it did every time when he saw her like this. He wished he could stop her suffering.
Someone had hurt her. Really bad.
“Sorry, Jenny.” His tone lowered to a whisper.
She shivered and then hugged herself. “You’d think I’d learn to spot the losers by now.”
“Is that why you’re back?”
“To find more?” Her teasing seemed like the right medicine for both of them.
“Only if that’s what you’re looking for. Hey, why not skip the prelude and I’ll let you have a look-see the next time the jail is full?”
“And who ever said you didn’t have a lick of romance in you? Tempting, sheriff, real tempting.”
“Men in cages?”
Jenny burst out laughing—real and robust. The tension fizzled out of her body. She leaned back against the side of her Jeep and tilted her head back, so the sun warmed her face. “I needed that.”
Images of her sunbathing in her back yard the summer she’d turned seventeen rushed back to him now. Teeny. Tiny. Pink bikini. Easy, McCall. Rein it in. The radio had played nonstop through those weeks, jumping from one favorite hit to the next. The scent of her coconut suntan oil had filled the air, never mind the way her skin glistened in the light.
He’d been twenty-one and a solider on leave, helping his army buddy—her brother—with repairing the rotten boards in the family barn.
How could he not look?
That was his excuse and he was sticking to it.
Caleb bit down hard, the muscle in his jaw jerking.
He’d roped himself in now just as he’d done back then. He could never do that to his best friend, Sonny. But if she wasn’t related to his friend, he’d have asked her out a long time ago…
Her soft question hit him swift and fierce between his ribs. A well of caring thrummed and he nearly lost his power to speak. The one thing he could never fault her on was her big, beautiful heart. That was part of her charm to most everyone who met her, especially him. And that was her downfall time and time again—falling hard and fast.
“I don’t think that will ever go away, Jenny. Grams was the world to him.” Fifty years of wedded bliss—mostly bliss—made Gramps ache for what he missed more than ever. True love was only for the lucky few. Caleb wasn’t destined for it in his lifetime. He wasn’t lucky in love. Never had been. Never would be. Jenny and he had something in common—both had been dumped, although she was one up on him.
“Set the bar high. I should have remembered that…”
“Why didn’t you?” The words were out before he could halt them.
“If you figure out the answer to that one, Caleb McCall, you’re far smarter than I am.”
“It’s a two-way street.”
“And they never cared as much as I did.” She straightened suddenly, shoving away from her Jeep. “You didn’t hear that from me, understand?”
“Got it.” He waited a beat. “How long you planning on staying again?”
“This time, didn’t you ask before?” With her back to him and her hands on her hips, she watched the thinning out band of cattle march by.
Caleb allowed his gaze to drift over her—from her hair, to her long neck, down her back, over her cute, round bottom, her incredible bare legs, and then ending at her blue boots. Damn!
She twisted swiftly, her eyebrow lifting. “Like the view?”
He gulped hard. Who wouldn’t? “The herd? Some have real promise. Just need to keep them healthy for the next couple of months and get them to market.”
“When’s the last time you were on the back of a horse, Jenny Girl?”
Her sharp gasp sliced through him.
Something warm and unspoken passed between them. Yeah, he hadn’t called her that since that time he tried to talk her out of running off to get married the first time years ago. Even after all this time, Caleb couldn’t quite figure out why he’d been so adamant. Her mother and brother hadn’t put up as much of a fess. But Caleb had.
Headstrong, Jenny hadn’t listened.
“Does putting in the quarter and hopping on the horsey outside the grocery store count?”
“Not even close.” But his voice held a grin.
“McCall, you going to let a little thing like my not riding in ages stop you?”
“Can’t risk it.” Even seasoned riders took a spill or got trampled on.
He clamped down on the fresh wave of pain as images of his mom and dad being stampeded reared up. Guilt followed at not being on the ranch when it happened nearly a decade ago. Maybe I could have prevented it or protected them.
“I’ll pick it back up.”
“Not on my time.”
“But you would give Sonny that chance? Never mind, I know the answer to that one.” She shook her head. “The buddy system. Growing up, signing up together, and even now.” Jenny blew out a breath. “At least he has you.”
“He didn’t turn his back on you.”
“Oh, you think it was the other way around?” She nearly growled it. “And people wonder why I tried to get out and stay out of this place.” Jenny dropped her glasses back down, covering her eyes again. She sashayed by him and returned to her Jeep. “Sheriff.”
Why did her abrupt dismissal pique his interest even more?
End of Excerpt