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Emmaline Claiborne glanced at her watch for the tenth time in as many minutes. Patience was definitely not one of her strongest virtues, and she’d been sitting at the elegant mahogany bar for more than fifteen minutes already. Her date was late and although he had no way of knowing it, she had a thing about punctuality. She might have been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt; perhaps he’d had trouble finding the restaurant or been delayed by traffic. But he had been the one to suggest they meet at the upscale Manhattan lounge, and he’d stipulated the time they would meet, so the least he could do was arrive on time.
She hoped he wouldn’t turn out to be a complete jerk. She was counting on him to be all the things he’d claimed in his online dating profile. She no longer had the time or luxury of researching and meeting another guy. Honestly, after five months of nights like this one, dating felt more like exercise than fun; she’d rather be at home in her comfortable pajamas, watching some mindless television. Pushing down her rising irritation, she took a sip of the wine she had ordered, and tried her best to look as if she wasn’t being stood up.
Behind the bartender, rows of whiskey bottles stood on display on mirrored shelving, the golden liquid glowing beneath museum-quality lighting. Emma could see her face reflected in the mirrored backdrop, fractured by the amber bottles. She looked paler than usual; her eyes unnaturally bright. She’d left her dark hair loose, so that it fell in heavy waves around her shoulders.
Despite the unseasonably cold June they’d been having in New York, and the chilly rain that had begun falling earlier that day, she’d squeezed herself into a little black dress with a plunging neckline that exposed the upper swells of her generous breasts. She hadn’t worn it in over a year and, even though she knew she’d put on some weight, had been dismayed by how snug the dress had become. She really needed to knock off the late-night trysts with her favorite rocky road ice cream. Thank goodness for shapewear. Even now, the vise-like grip of the elastic undergarment made it impossible to do anything except sit rigidly upright and take small sips of her wine. She just hoped the excessive display of skin would be enough to entice her date into accepting her proposal. It was daring of her, really, but she had run out of options. She’d do whatever it took to get him to agree.
The buzz of voices and laughter came from the restaurant behind her, along with the clink of glassware and cutlery, and the rich sound of piano music from the baby grand in the corner. All she’d had for breakfast was a yogurt and, thinking about tonight, she’d been too on edge to eat lunch. Now the tantalizing aroma of filet mignon made her mouth water and her stomach rumble.
In the next moment, she became aware of a subtle shift in the atmosphere of the restaurant, an undercurrent of energy that hadn’t existed seconds earlier. Curious, she shifted on her upholstered bar stool and looked toward the source of the sudden interest. A man had entered the restaurant amidst a swirl of wind and sheeting rain, and now he stood just inside the doorway, scanning the interior as if searching for someone.
Emma’s eyes widened.
It wasn’t every day you saw a real-life cowboy in Lower Manhattan, and there was no question in Emma’s mind that this guy was the real deal. She should know. She’d spent a huge chunk of her childhood in Last Stand, Texas. From the broad thrust of his shoulders beneath a shearling coat, to the tapered toes of his scuffed Western boots and the dripping wet Stetson he banged against his thigh, the man was one hundred percent, unadulterated, all-American cowboy. She could almost see the dust of a cattle drive clinging to his clothes. This guy wouldn’t be caught dead in designer denim.
Her gaze lifted to his face, and for a moment, she found it hard to breathe. He had light-colored eyes, a square jaw, and cheekbones you could slice your fingers on, and even from a distance she could see streaks of gold in his short brown hair. His Western gear aside, the guy still would have stood out in a New York crowd. He was hot.
In the next instant, she realized he was staring at her with an intensity that bordered on impolite. She swiveled back around and clutched the stem of her wineglass, trying to pretend she hadn’t noticed him. But in the mirrored glass over the bar she watched, riveted, as he crossed the space that separated them.
Was he really singling her out? Her heart began to knock hard behind her ribs. Oh, God, please don’t let him try to hit on her now, not when her date could walk through the door at any second. The last thing she needed was for Rhys Bridges to see her with another man. She couldn’t afford for the thirtysomething software mogul to get the wrong idea and call off their date. Besides, as gorgeous as this stranger was, cowboys weren’t her type. She wanted more than a good ol’ boy who spent his days riding fences and his nights throwing back whiskey. But even that sobering thought wasn’t enough to stop her from admiring the man as he approached.
He walked with an easy, rolling, loose-limbed gait, and his eyes never left hers in the mirror. When, finally, he stood just behind her, Emma’s breathing was a little uneven and her palms were moist.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
His voice was deep and whiskey-rough, sliding over Emma’s senses like a delicious caress, with just enough of a drawl to know he wasn’t faking it. Any of it. This guy was an authentic Texan to his bones—she’d have staked her life on it.
Unable to ignore him, she released her wineglass and turned on her stool. His shoulders were broad beneath the shearling coat, and water had beaded on the suede, running in rivulets from his shoulders and down over the fabric. Up close, she could see stubble shadowing the man’s strong jaw, and his eyes were a shade of green so light and pure they reminded her of the sea glass she’d once collected as a teenager on Nantucket Island.
And his mouth…
Emma had never seen such kissable lips on a man before. Full and pink, they were totally incongruous with the hard, chiseled planes of his face. But rather than diminishing his overall manliness, they enhanced it. Emma would have bet good money that she wasn’t the first woman who had looked at him and immediately thought about all the things he could do with that luscious mouth. Sitting there, staring up at him, she felt her stomach squeeze tight in a way that had nothing to do with her shapewear. The way he looked at her made her nervous, as if he knew something about her that even she didn’t know. A secret, maybe, that he hadn’t yet decided to share. To regain some equilibrium, she swept him with what she hoped was an amused glance.
“What’s the matter, cowboy? Lose your horse? You’re a long way from the ranch.”
He didn’t respond to the gentle ribbing. In fact, his expression was so determinedly grim that Emma thought anything resembling a smile might cause his handsome face to crack.
He knew her name—her full name. Nobody ever called her Emmaline, except maybe her father and only when she’d annoyed him. How could this man know her name? She’d never met him before, because she definitely would have remembered a face like his.
If anything, the cowboy’s expression grew even more serious. “I’m a friend of Rhys Bridges. If I’m not mistaken, you’re here to meet him.”
Alarm, bright and hot, flashed through Emma. “Has something happened to him?”
“No, ma’am, he’s fine.” The cowboy’s gaze never left hers. “But he won’t be meeting you tonight, or any other night. I just figured you ought to know.”
Emma frowned as suspicion replaced the initial alarm. “Did Rhys send you? Did he ask you to come here?”
The cowboy hesitated. “No, ma’am. I came because I don’t hold with leaving a lady waiting in a bar without any explanation.”
“So where is he, then? You apparently believe I deserve an explanation, so let’s hear it.”
“He had a change of heart.”
Emma blinked. “That’s it? He just changed his mind, out of the blue?”
“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” She narrowed her eyes as she assessed him. “Maybe this is how you pick up unsuspecting women, by telling them their dates aren’t going to show up, and then act like you’re the Lone Ranger, riding to the rescue.”
The cowboy’s expression didn’t change. “I’m not lying to you. I just thought you should know.” He paused, and his glance flickered to the door before returning to her. “I’m going to leave now.”
Was this guy for real? Emma held up one finger.
“Hold on a sec. I’m going to text Rhys right now.” She picked up her phone from the bar and tapped out a message.
Where are you? And who is this cowboy? Did you send him?
“He’s not going to reply.” The cowboy’s voice was gentle. “Just so you know.”
She looked up at him, frustrated. “Why couldn’t he tell me himself? He has my number. He had plenty of time to cancel without making me go to the trouble of dressing up and coming out in this weather. And you, too, for that matter.”
“Like I said, it’s complicated.”
Emma stared at the cowboy, noting the grim resignation in his eyes and something else that looked like sympathy. But Emma didn’t want this man’s pity.
She wanted Rhys Bridges. She needed someone with his sophistication, charm, and power. From what she’d learned about him over the past few weeks, she suspected he wouldn’t be intimidated by her father, her brothers, or her family’s wealth. Best of all, he hadn’t been fazed by her crazy family dynamics; her father had been married three times, and had produced five children with four different women. Emma’s mother had been Wife No. 3, and she’d lasted longer than the others, at five years. But in the end, she’d divorced Emma’s father and returned to her home state of New York, bringing three-year-old Emma with her.
Now, looking at the cowboy, a part of her understood he’d had no obligation to come by the ritzy restaurant to tell her she was being stood up. He could have minded his own business and let her sit there all night, wondering what had happened to her date. What he’d done was both considerate and gentlemanly. But another part of her felt annoyed and even a little hurt by the apparent rejection. She’d been counting on this date, had been certain she and Rhys would hit it off. They’d seemed so compatible during the phone conversations they’d had, and his texts had been funny and sweet. She’d liked him, which made this so much worse. Her plans to bring Rhys to her sister’s wedding and show everyone that she was fine were falling to pieces around her. She’d chosen Rhys Bridges because he was exactly the kind of man who would make her lying, cheating, no-good ex-boyfriend, Damon Stewart, insane with jealousy. The same ex-boyfriend who was now engaged to her little sister, and whose wedding she was obliged to suffer through in just three weeks’ time.
Stifling a groan of frustration, she indicated the empty stool next to her own. “Well, since you’re here, you might as well have a drink. Please. It’s on me.”
The cowboy hesitated, and for a second Emma thought he might refuse. Then he slid a leg over the stool and placed his wet hat on the vacant one beside him. Raising a finger, he caught the bartender’s attention.
“Wild Turkey, neat.” The bartender poured a generous amount into a glass, and slid it toward him. The cowboy hunkered forward and cradled the tumbler of whiskey between his hands. They were the strong, square hands of a man accustomed to hard work. Emma noted he wore no rings. Now he angled his head to look at her. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
Emma gave a short laugh. “Why? It’s not your fault. Besides, I never even met Rhys in person, so it’s not like I’m heartbroken or anything.”
Rhys Bridges had been a means to an end, nothing more.
The cowboy’s eyes were so intense Emma had to look away. She pretended interest in her wineglass, instead, because staring at him was doing funny things to her insides. “So what’s your name, cowboy? And how do you know Rhys?”
“We’ve been friends since, oh, about second grade.”
She did look at him then. “Really?”
Reaching over, the cowboy extended his hand. “Cort Channing.”
His hand was big and warm. His palms were rough with callouses, but his grip wasn’t crushing. She liked that. A little too much, apparently, since she couldn’t quite bring herself to release him. A smile lifted one side of his mouth as he looked at where she clung to him.
She jerked her hand away. “What brings you to New York? I mean, we don’t see too many cowboys around here.”
“Well, I’m partly here to see Rhys, but mostly I’m in town for the rodeo.”
Of course. It all made sense now: his clothes, his easy swagger, and even the hard ridges on the palms of his hands. She’d seen the Raw Unleashed bull rider event advertised throughout the city, on billboards and the sides of buses, but hadn’t paid much attention. The annual event, held at Madison Square Garden, drew tens of thousands of spectators each year, and for three or four days, Midtown Manhattan hosted hundreds of cowboys and rodeo fans.
“Right, I’ve seen the ads.” She gave him a bright smile, when everything in her wanted to rant against the unfairness of seeing her plans ruined. “So, you have tickets to the show! That’s great.”
She thought a smile quirked his mouth, but it was gone before she could be certain. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, Cort Channing, thank you for coming by to tell me I was wasting my time waiting for Rhys.” She sighed. “I seem to have a knack for picking losers.”
“Maybe you should have swiped left instead of right.”
“Excuse me?” Emma felt warm color seep into her face at his wry reference to swiping left on a dating app, to indicate a lack of interest in meeting the person. “You know we met through a dating app?”
“Yes, ma’am, he told me.” He stared into his glass for a moment before angling his head toward her. “I checked out your profile. Pretty impressive.”
“You what?” Emma tried to recall just what she’d put on her profile page. Her age, occupation, and some hobbies and activities she thought might appeal to a man with money and influence. She may have exaggerated, just a little, about her sailing and skiing skills. “Why would you do that?”
“I wanted to be sure I’d recognize you. Your profile says you’re an artist. That’s pretty cool.”
“An aspiring artist, actually. I work at a gallery in Midtown,” she replied, ignoring the warm rush of pleasure his words caused. She didn’t add that the gallery belonged to her mother, and that her job consisted mainly of coordinating events and exhibits. She did have a degree in fine arts and worked mostly in acrylics and watercolor, although she didn’t consider herself to be an artist. Not a true artist, anyway. She’d never sold any of her work. Her mother frequently pressed her to exhibit her paintings, but Emma had yet to do it.
“But you felt you needed to join a dating app in order to meet Mr. Right?”
Emma barely suppressed her snort of disdain. She was so not looking for Mr. Right. Her foray into the world of online dating had nothing to do with romance, and everything to do with saving her pride and dignity. But she couldn’t say that to this man. She didn’t want his pity.
“It’s not as easy as you’d think to meet people when you work full-time, even in a city as big as New York,” she finally said, which was the truth. “I won’t lie. I’m disappointed about Rhys, but it’s probably for the best. Any guy who would stand someone up without so much as the courtesy of a phone call isn’t worth the time.”
“Rhys isn’t a bad guy. Trust me when I tell you he had a good reason for not showing up tonight. As for not calling to cancel first—” He shrugged. “He didn’t have much of a chance. Things just happened too fast.”
“But you’re not going to tell me what happened.” Emma watched as he picked up his whiskey and drained the last bit before setting the glass down on the bar.
“No, ma’am. That’s not my story to tell.” Reaching inside his shearling coat, he pulled out a wallet, withdrew three ten-dollar bills, and tossed them beside the glass.
“I told you this was my treat,” Emma protested.
“Sorry, but I can’t let a lady buy me a drink, especially when her opinion of men isn’t all that high to begin with,” he said, slanting her a rueful smile.
Emma gave him a tolerant look. “I never said that.”
He picked up his hat and stood up. “You didn’t need to.” He paused. “But I am curious. What was it about Rhys that made you choose him? I’ve never been on a dating app before today, but I’m guessing there must be hundreds of guys to pick from. Why him?”
Emma moistened her lips, debating how to respond. “Rhys is handsome, polished, and successful,” she finally replied. “Who wouldn’t want to meet a guy like that?”
Something flickered in Cort’s eyes, and his gaze moved downward in a slow, deliberate inspection, lingering for a second longer than was polite over her cleavage. “You’ll want to be careful. Aside from the fact that online dating is killing the art of courtship, it can also be dangerous. There’re plenty of creeps out there.”
Had he really used the word courtship? The word conjured up images of old-fashioned romance, of wildflower bouquets, lemonade and porch swings, and chaperoned barn dances. How would it feel to have a man like Cort Channing wait for you in your parents’ living room, while you finished getting ready in an upstairs bedroom? Something that felt very much like longing swept through Emma.
“Thanks for your concern,” she said, “but I can take care of myself.”
His expression said he didn’t believe her. “Can I ask how you’re getting home?”
She lifted her chin. “I won’t be accepting any rides from strange cowboys, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“That’s a damned shame,” he murmured. Reaching inside his coat, he took out a small envelope and opened it, withdrawing three glossy tickets. “If you change your mind, here’s where you can find me for the next three days. If you’re interested, that is.”
There was no mistaking the ring of challenge in his tone. Ignoring her astonished expression, he handed her the tickets. They were for the bull riding event at Madison Square Garden, one for each day, and a quick glance told her they weren’t cheap. She didn’t want to be rude, but there was no way she’d be caught dead at a rodeo. She had no desire to see anyone get stomped on by a raging side of beef.
“I can’t accept these,” she protested, pushing the tickets toward him. “I’m sure there’s somebody else you’d rather take and besides, I’m not sure I can get away.”
“There’s no pressure,” he said, and closed his hand around hers so that the tickets lay curled inside her palm. “If you do show up, great. If you don’t, it’s been a real pleasure meeting you, Emmaline Claiborne, even if the circumstances weren’t ideal. Good night.”
Emma watched as he made his way toward the door. He pushed it open and thrust his hat on before turning his collar up against the wet chill and stepping out into the night. After he left, the glamorous bar seemed to lose some of its magic.
Emma looked at the tickets in her hand. Glossy and black, they featured an image of a bull rider being tossed into the air. The words Raw Unleashed! were printed across the front in bright red. There was little chance she’d take the cowboy up on his offer. She didn’t want to give him the wrong idea. Aside from his obvious good looks, he was the complete opposite of everything she was looking for in a man. She could just imagine how her family would react if she brought someone like Cort Channing to her sister’s wedding.
The thought gave her pause.
What if she did bring a cowboy home for the wedding? Her die-hard ranching family would be flabbergasted. It would be the last thing they’d ever expect from her. Hadn’t she spent the past ten years trying to show them how sophisticated and worldly she was? How much better suited she was to Manhattan than Texas? How she was every inch her mother’s daughter?
Her older brothers wouldn’t be able to haze a cowboy, since they were cut from the same rawhide cloth. Even her father, the taciturn and intimidating patriarch of the Claiborne family, would have a tough time pretending he didn’t approve, since he was a fifth-generation cattle rancher. More importantly, if she brought a cowboy to the wedding, none of her family could accuse her of trying to compete with her sister, who’d managed to snag herself a wealthy bestselling author of espionage novels right out from under Emma’s nose.
Emma felt a familiar ache in her chest and the hot sting of tears behind her eyelids. She had never thought of Callie as her half sister, although technically she was. They had different mothers, as did most of the Claiborne children, but Callie was the only Claiborne to be born out of wedlock. Gus Claiborne’s extramarital affair with Rachel Dean had destroyed his marriage to Emma’s mother, although Emma suspected the marriage had been rocky from the beginning. Gus had acknowledged Callie as his daughter and provided for her financially, but he’d refused to marry Rachel Dean. He had ended his relationship with Callie’s mother the day Emma’s mother discovered the affair, and walked out on him.
Emma thought she could understand some of Callie’s bitterness, but why take it out on her? With three years between them, and Emma only able to visit the ranch during school vacations, they hadn’t been close growing up. Callie had always been competitive with Emma, vying for their father’s attention, but she’d never guessed just how much resentment Callie harbored against her. If she had, she never would have invited her to spend the summer with her and Damon. Looking back, she realized she’d actually felt very self-important, showing her little sister around New York City and pointing out everything she was missing by remaining in Last Stand, Texas. She hadn’t realized that after she’d left for the gallery each morning, Callie had taken the opportunity to get close to Damon, who had worked out of the Manhattan apartment he and Emma shared.
Looking back, all the signs of the illicit love affair had been there, almost from the start. Emma had just been too blind to recognize them and was unprepared for the betrayal. Even now, more than a year later, she still couldn’t understand how two people she’d loved could conspire to destroy her so completely. They’d assured her they hadn’t planned it; it had just happened. But she’d been blindsided, her entire world thrown into chaos. How could her judgment have been so wrong? How could she ever trust herself—or anyone else—ever again?
Now Callie and Damon were living in Texas and getting married, and Emma had no choice but to attend the wedding or risk looking both petty and pathetic. She had seriously considered not going. Every cell in her body rebelled at the thought of watching her former lover—the man she’d believed she would someday marry—exchange vows with her sister. But her pride had gotten the better of her, and she had determined she would go. She’d be damned if she’d let them think she cared. But she had counted on bringing a date, a man to play the part of her doting boyfriend and quell the sympathetic glances and whispers she would otherwise be forced to endure. But Rhys had been a no-show, and now it looked as if she’d be returning to Last Stand alone. Unless…
She looked again at the tickets in her hand. Did she dare? Could she persuade Cort Channing to escort her to her sister’s wedding in just three weeks’ time? He’d seemed interested in seeing her again, but would he be interested enough to accompany her to Last Stand, Texas? She would cover all his expenses, of course. Cowboys probably lived paycheck to paycheck, and she had plenty of money in her bank account for airfare, and even a new suit if he needed one, although she suspected he would be too proud to accept anything from her.
She told herself her sudden interest in Cort Channing as a potential escort had nothing to do with his beautiful eyes, or his tempting mouth, or his strong, capable-looking hands. She simply needed a date to save face, and she was running out of time.
But as she tucked the tickets back into her purse and collected her coat from the hostess, Emma knew she was lying to herself.
End of Excerpt