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The Ballad Of Dixon Bell
By Lynnette Kent
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMarch Boswell, Colorado
"You making time with your sweetheart again, Dixie?"
"That ain't his sweetheart. That's his baby girl. Right, Dixie?"
Dixon Bell just grinned at the cowboys' teasing and kept walking at a slow, easy pace toward the three unbroken horses poised along one curve of the corral. The buckskin and the pinto danced away as he got close. The black quarter horse mare knew him, though, and had come to trust him a little. Ears twitching, tail flicking, she watched him approach. She was nervous, sure. But willing to give him a chance.
"Hey, there, gorgeous," he crooned, coming to a stop by her shoulder. He put a hand on the smooth, warm skin of her neck. "Thanks for waiting for me. How's it going?"
She turned her head toward him, nosed his arm and chest, then jerked away as the buckskin came near again. Ears drawn flat against her head, eyes wide, the mare warned the other horse off.
"No need to be jealous, sweetheart." Dixon chuckled as he stroked his palm along her back. "I've only got eyes for you."
Talking quietly, he ran his hands over her ribs, her flanks, her chest, combed his fingers through her jet-black mane. As she calmed, he bent to stroke her legs, lifting each foot in turn, all the time praising her for standing still, for letting him have his way.
Then he straightened up and allowed the halter he'd hooked over his shoulder to drop down to his hand. "Remember this?" He held it under her nose, watched her sniff. "We got this on yesterday. Let's try again."
She wasn't happy about it, but did finally let him slip the soft halter over her nose and ears. Left to run wild in the Colorado hills since her birth two years ago, she hadn't been trained to accept human restraints. Though she balked when he hooked the lead rope to the halter, the mare eventually consented to be led around the corral without too much fuss ... as long as the buckskin kept her distance. This quarter horse wasn't interested in sharing her man with anybody else.
"She'll make a good mount," the ranch foreman commented when Dixon left the corral. "You're sure taking your time, though. There's easier, quicker ways to break a horse."
"I'm not interested in easier and quicker," Dixon told him. "Usually that means some kind of pain for the animal. I'm content to take things slow, exercise a little patience."
"Next thing we know, you'll be hugging trees." The foreman gave him a friendly punch in the arm as they parted ways. Dixon returned the halter to the barn and headed to the bunkhouse to wash up for dinner. The aroma of grilled meat hung in the dry mountain air, teasing him with visions of steak and potatoes. He'd been up at dawn, heading out to round up cows and calves, and the only food he'd managed all day was a quick sandwich at lunch. Hungry wasn't a big enough word for the emptiness inside him tonight.
A stop at the mailbox on his way in rewarded him with a letter from home. Dixon delayed the pleasure until he'd changed into a clean shirt and jeans and washed his hands. Then he sat on his bunk to read what his grandmother, Miss Daisy Crawford, had to say.
She wrote, on lavender-scented paper in an old-fashioned, flowing script, of her friends, her neighbors, the civic meetings she went to, the goings-on at church. One of her cats had been sick, some kind of kidney problem, but the vet prescribed a new diet which seemed to be working. The weather had been strange this year - variably cold and hot - so she never knew what to wear when she went out.
Finally, I thought you might want to know that we've had something of a scandal here recently. L. T. LaRue - whom I would designate a scalawag, if there were still such a thing - up and left his family a few weeks ago. Moved out of their house and into a love nest with his office secretary, declaring to the world his intention to get a divorce and marry this girl young enough to be his daughter. I taught her in Sunday School just a few years ago; I can't imagine what could have happened to bring her to such a state.
This domestic tragedy leaves Kate LaRue - she was Kate Bowdrey, as I'm sure you recall - alone to take care of two teenagers. Poor Kate, she's struggled to put up with that man these ten years, even adopted his children, and look what he's gone and done to her. Some men just are not to be relied upon.
Dixon read those next-to-last paragraphs several times, then sat staring at his grandmother's pale-blue stationery without seeing the words written there. His brain had latched onto one important point - Kate Bowdrey LaRue was getting a divorce. That meant she wouldn't be married anymore. As in single. Unattached. Available.
And that meant the time had come for him to go home.
July New Skye, North Carolina
With a clap of thunder, the sky broke open. Raindrops pelted the pavement and windows like bullets. Caught unprotected as she locked her car door, Kate LaRue shrieked and dashed for the nearest cover, which happened to be the green-and-white striped awning of Drew's Coffee Shop.
She was drenched when she got there, of course, her thin linen top practically transparent, her skirt hanging heavy around her waist. Water squished between her sandals and the soles of her feet.
"What a mess," she muttered as she pulled her shirt away from her bra, only to have it stick again. Around her, the smell of wet pavement blended with the pungent scent of coffee brewing inside the café. "I'll have to go back home and change."
"Beautiful day, don't you think?" The voice, strangely familiar, came from behind. "There's nothing like a southern rainstorm to clear the dust out of the air."
Kate turned to look at the tall, lean man standing with a shoulder propped against the brick wall that framed Drew's window. "You're joking, right?"
He had a wide, white grin in a tanned face. "Not at all. After a few years of eating dirt in the west Texas oil fields, I appreciate a good rain."
"You don't sound like you're from Texas." In fact, he sounded as if he'd lived right here in New Skye, North Carolina, his whole life. She should know him, Kate was sure. But good manners forbade that she just out and ask him what his name was.
"Thank goodness. I'd hate to be identified by my twang." He straightened up to his full, lanky height. "Would you like to step inside and get a drink? Something to warm you up?"
Holding out his hand, he directed her to the entrance of Drew's, where she was certain he would open the door for her. Suddenly, just from the way he looked at her, she was equally certain he knew exactly who she was. She studied him for a long moment, searching for a clue in the rich, brown waves of his hair, the glint in his dark eyes, the tilt of his head. When the answer swam up from the depths of her memory, she caught her breath at the impossible rightness of it. "Dixon? Dixon Bell?"
His grin widened. "Took you long enough." He put his hands on her shoulders and leaned in to kiss her cheek. "I was beginning to think I'd have to show you my driver's license. How are you, Kate?"
Without thinking, she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. "You've been gone so long. Welcome home!"
She felt his warm hands through the wet cloth on her back, felt the wall of his chest against her breasts. His shoulders were wide and strong. He smelled of starch and soap. And man.
Excerpted from The Ballad Of Dixon Bell by Lynnette Kent Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.