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Startled, the young woman jumped back, her long brown braid swaying with the motion. A thick hardback book clutched in her hands, her chocolate-brown eyes locked with his. Without conscious will, his gaze strayed down the slender lines of her body. Her royal blue tank top left her creamy shoulders bare and delineated the curves of her small breasts. Her jeans fit neatly at her narrow waist, shaped her rounded hips, hinted at long, tempting legs.
To his utter surprise, desire curled low in his body, for an instant burning away his urgency to get to the school. The young, dark-haired woman stared at him, for one heartbeat, two, then with a slow curve of her lips, she smiled.
If her eyes sent fantasies dancing through his brain, her smile completely addled him. Without conscious thought, he shifted the truck into Park, reached for the door, ready to jump from the truck and ask her name. She was a complete stranger in a town where no one remained a stranger for long. How could he have missed her?
Then, with a shy dip of her head, she continued on across the street, hurrying along the sidewalk back the way he'd come. He watched her in the side view mirror, saw her step inside the Hart Valley Inn. One of his sister Beth's guests then. Easy enough to find out her identity.
He shook his head, angry with himself. He had no time for women, pretty or not. He had to keep his mind on his daughter. Shoving his truck into gear, he gunned away from the crosswalk. The roar of the pickup's engine caught the attention of Mort Gibbons and his wife over at the Pump 'n' Go. Tom lightened his lead foot, gave Mort and Arlene an apologetic wave.
He turned left just past the Pump 'n' Go, saw Hart Valley Elementary School where the road dead-ended. Anger warred with worry inside him as he pulled into the school parking lot. Worry over his daughter, Jessie, was too painful to bear, so as he shut off the engine with a savage turn of the key, he let anger win.
Take a breath, he told himself as he resisted the urge to break something. Calm down.
He closed his eyes, dragging air into his lungs. He imagined the wide pastures of the Double J ranch, his herd of quarter horses grazing the sweet spring grass.
He saw Jessie there, smiling up at him, and a sense of tranquility washed over him.
Pushing open the door, he climbed from the truck. Beyond the parking lot, a group of students chased each other across the ball field. Boys and girls raced pellmell from one side of the grassy field to the other, completely carefree.
Did Jessie still possess the joy of childhood he saw in those schoolkids? If she did, he'd seen few traces of it in the years since her accident. The child she'd been at age five might have dashed across that field with the same abandon. The somber nine-year-old she was now ...
He shook the bad memories loose. He'd better head for the principal's office, get this over with. Shutting the truck door, Tom hurried across the parking lot. He slowed as he got close enough to see through the office window, stopped entirely when he saw his daughter's dark blond head just visible through the glass. Even from this distance, he could sense the tension in her body, a tension that never seemed to release.
He caught a glimpse of the principal as she approached Jessie, saw his daughter's head tip up. Tom could imagine Jessie's face - the familiar fixing-for-a-fight expression. The same stubborn set of jaw he saw in the mirror, softened by her mother's deep brown eyes.
Taking a breath, Tom pulled open the office door and stepped inside. Both Jessie's and the principal's heads swiveled toward him, irritation in Mrs. Beeber's eyes, relief in Jessie's. For an instant, Tom could see the old hero worship Jessie once felt for him and his heart melted. Then his daughter's gaze shuttered and she looked away.
Battleaxe Beeber took a step toward him, her black eyes narrowed in distaste. "Good of you to finally show up, Mr. Jarret."
Tom's hackles rose at the principal's self-righteous tone. "Finally show up? I came as soon as I got your call. I was out fixing fence in my back pasture."
Mrs. Beeber flung out her hand dismissively. "So the notes home ... my previous calls ... they weren't persuasive enough?"
"What notes?" Tom turned his gaze on Jessie, saw her head dip down as if she'd suddenly found her toes fascinating. "What calls?" he asked in a dangerously quiet tone. "Jessie?"
A quick sidelong glance from Jessie, then she returned to studying her sneakers. "I hid a few notes."
"I've sent home at least a dozen," Mrs. Beeber stated imperiously.
Jessie gave the stout woman a dirty look. "Nine. There were nine notes."
"And I called -"
"How many phone calls?" Tom cut in before the principal could embellish the truth. "Jessie?"
"Three times." Jessie cradled her right arm with her left, as if to further hide the burn scars her long sleeved T-shirt covered. "I let the answering machine pick up, then I erased the messages."
It wasn't right what she'd done, hiding the notes and erasing the calls. He had every right to be angry. But as she hunched there, seeming so fragile and alone, Tom's ire washed away. He lost the heart to scold her, especially in front of the woman they'd privately nicknamed the Battleaxe.
He tore his gaze from Jessie, turned to the principal. "You said she was in a fight."
"In the cafeteria." Mrs. Beeber squared her shoulders, jaw set like stone. "She caused an injury to one of the children."
Jessie surged to her feet. "Is Sabrina okay?"
"She has a concussion." The principal glared at Jessie. "Sabrina tried to stop the fight and your daughter knocked her into a table."
"It was an accident!" Jessie declared, taking a step toward Mrs. Beeber. Jessie's arms hung at her sides, the right one crooked at the elbow, never quite as straight as the left.
Distaste clear in her face, Mrs. Beeber flicked a glance at Jessie's right arm. "Nevertheless -"
"Did she start the fight?" Tom asked, struggling to hold back the anger that threatened to rise up again.
Jessie shook her head vehemently. "I didn't, Dad."
Mrs. Beeber sniffed. "So she says."
Excerpted from Counting On A Cowboy by Karen Sandler Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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