Brenda Minton lives in the Ozarks with her husband and three children. Life is chaotic but she enjoys every minute of it with her family and a few too many dogs. When not writing she's drinking coffee, talking to friends, or hanging out at the river with her family and extended family. visit her online at www.brendaminton.net
Cowboy Next Doorby Brenda Minton
Never again would he be burned by a city girl! No matter how sweet and loveable they seem, Lacey Gould and her niece won't win over Jay Blackhorse. Still, they clearly need his help. Lacey needs a place to stay he has a house to rent. She's clueless about caring for the infant her sister abandoned. Jay has a talent for stopping the baby's tears. But when… See more details below
Never again would he be burned by a city girl! No matter how sweet and loveable they seem, Lacey Gould and her niece won't win over Jay Blackhorse. Still, they clearly need his help. Lacey needs a place to stay he has a house to rent. She's clueless about caring for the infant her sister abandoned. Jay has a talent for stopping the baby's tears. But when a dark secret from Lacey's past blows into town, will Jay's help be enough? And who will help Jay when he realizes he's falling for the city girl next door?
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The Cowboy Next Door
By Brenda Minton
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Lacey, when are you going to go out with me?" Bobby Fynn hollered from across the dining room of the Hash-It-Out Diner.
"Maybe next week," Lacey called back as she refilled an empty coffee cup, smiling at her customer, an older woman with curly black hair and a sweet smile.
"Come on, Lacey, you can't keep turning me down."
Lacey smiled and shook her head, because Bobby wasn't serious, and she wasn't interested.
"Ignore him," Marci, the hostess, whispered as Lacey walked past.
Lacey shot her friend a smile. "He doesn't bother me. I'll be back in a minute. I need to get a pitcher of water."
She hurried to the waitress station, set the glass coffeepot on the warming tray, and grabbed the pitcher of ice water. The cowbell over the door clanged, announcing the arrival of another customer. She hustled around the corner, pretending her feet weren't blistered and her back wasn't aching from the double shifts she'd worked for the last week.
If it wasn't for the perfect piece of land she wanted to buy
Two strong hands grabbed her arms, stopping her mid-stride and preventing a near collision. The pitcher of ice water she'd carried out of the waitress station sloshed, soaking her shirt. She looked up, muttering about clumsiness and met the dark gaze of Officer Jay Blackhorse.
Gorgeous, he was definitely gorgeous. Tall with black hair and brown eyes. All cowboy. Allrugged and sure of himself. But not her type. He'd been back in Gibson, Missouri, for a month now, and she already had him figured out. He was too serious, not the kind of customer who chatted with a waitress, and she was fine with the knowledge that they weren't going to be best friends.
Several men called out, offering him a chair at their table, as Lacey moved out of his grasp. Not only was he the law, his family also raised cattle and horses. He hadn't lived in Gibson for the last seven or eight years, but he still fit in on so many levels that Lacey didn't know how he could do it all.
She was still trying to find something other than round holes for her square-peg self.
She was the girl from St. Louis who had showed up six years ago with a broken-down car, one hundred dollars and the dream of finding a new life.
Jay waved at the men who called out to him, but he didn't take them up on their offers to sit. Instead, he took hold of Lacey's arm and moved her toward the door.
"Lacey, I need to talk to you outside."
"Sure." Of course, not a problem.
She set the pitcher of ice water on a table and followed him to the door, trying hard not to remember her other life, the life that had included more than one trip in the back of a police car.
It would have been a waste of breath to tell Jay she wasn't that person any more. He didn't know her.
He didn't know what it had been like to grow up in her home, with a family that had fallen apart before she could walk. Jay had a mom who baked cookies and played the piano at church. Lacey's mom had brought home boyfriends for herself and her daughters.
Instead of protesting, Lacey shot Jay a disgusted lookas if it didn't matterand exited the diner at his side. When they were both outside, she turned on him, pushing down her pain and reaching for the old Lacey, the one who knew how to handle these situations.
"What's this all about, Blackhorse? Is it 'humiliate the waitress day' and someone nominated me to get the prize?"
He shook his head and pointed to his car. "Sorry, Lacey, but I didn't know what else to do with her."
The back door of the patrol car opened.
Lacey watched the young woman step out with a tiny baby in her arms and a so what look on her face. Jay's strong hand gripped Lacey's arm, holding her tight as she drew in a deep breath and tried to focus. She pulled her arm free because she wasn't about to fall.
Or fall apart.
Even at twenty-two Corry still looked drugged-out, antsy and on the verge of running. Her dark eyes were still narrowed in angeras if the world had done her wrong. The thrust of her chin told everyone she would do what she wanted, no matter whom it hurt.
Jay stood next to Lacey, his voice low. "She said she hitched a ride to Gibson and that she's your sister."
Lacey wanted to say that it wasn't true and that she didn't have a sister. She wanted to deny she knew the young woman with the dirty black hair and a baby in her arms.
The baby cried and Lacey made eye contact with Corry.
"She's my sister," Lacey said, avoiding Jay's gaze.
"Thanks for claiming me." Corry smacked her gum, the baby held loosely against her shoulder, little arms flailing. The loose strap of Corry's tank top slid down her shoulder, and her shorts were frayed.
"I don't have to leave her here." Jay pulled sunglasses from his pocket and slid them on, covering melted-chocolate eyes. The uniform changed him from the cowboy that sat with the guys during lunch to someone in authority.
Lacey nodded because he did have to leave Corry. What else could he do? What was Lacey going to do? Deny her sister? The Samaritan had cared for the man on the side of the road, a man he didn't know. And Lacey knew Corry.
"She can stay. I'm off duty in thirty minutes."
"Do you have to make it sound like the worst thing in the world?" Corry handed Lacey the baby and turned to pick up the backpack that Jay had pulled from the trunk of his car.
Lacey looked at the infant. The baby, Corry's baby, was dressed in pink and without a single hair on her head. She was beautiful.
"Her name's Rachel." Corry tossed the information like it didn't matter. "I heard that in a Bible story at the mission we've been living in. We couldn't stay there, though. We need a real home."
A real home? The one-room apartment that Lacey rented from the owners of the Hash-It-Out was hardly a home fit for three.
She inhaled a deep breath of air that smelled like the grill inside the diner, and the lunch special of fried chicken. Corry and a baby. Family meant something. Lacey had learned that in Gibson, not in the home she grew up in. Now was the time to put it into practice. She could tell her sister to leave, or she could be the person who gave Corry a chance.
Like the people of Gibson had done for her.
But what if Corry ruined everything? Lacey tucked that fear away, all the while ignoring the imposing Officer Blackhorse in his blue-and-gray uniform, gun hanging at his side.
"You know, you two could help me," Corry tossed over her shoulder as she dug around in the back seat of the patrol car. "I haven't eaten since this morning. And then I get here and you aren't even glad to see me."
Continuous jabber. Lacey tuned it out, nodding in what she hoped were the appropriate places. She held Corry's baby close and took the car seat that Jay had pulled out of his car. His gaze caught and held hers for a moment, and his lips turned in a hesitant smile that shifted the smooth planes of his face. Jay with his perfect life and his perfect family.
She didn't want to think about what he thought when he looked at her and her sister.
"Need anything?" Jay took a step back, but he didn't turn away.
She shrugged off the old feelings of inadequacy and turned to face her sister. Corry shifted from foot to foot, hugging herself tight with arms that were too thin and scarred from track marksevidence of her drug use.
"Lacey?" Jay hadn't moved away and she didn't know what to say.
Lacey Gould's dark, lined eyes were luminous with unshed tears. Jay hadn't expected that reaction from the waitress who always had a comeback. He held a grudging admiration for her because she never slowed down.
And he knew her secrets, just as he knew that her sister had prior arrests. Corry Gould had two drug convictions and one charge of prostitution. She was a repeat offender. A simple run through the state system was all it took to find out if a person had a criminal record. In Lacey's case, the Gibson police chief had filled him in. Jay hadn't been sure if it had been gossip or serious concern for his parents. They had spent a lot of time with Lacey Gould in his absence.
His parents hadn't appreciated his concern, though. They knew all about Lacey's arrest record, and they knew who she was now. That was good enough for them.
He'd been a cop for too long to let it be good enough for him.
Lacey shifted next to him, the baby fussing.
She was slight in build, but not thin. Her brown eyes often flashed with humor and she had a mouth that smiled as much as it talked. He tried to ignore the dark hair, cut in a chunky style and highlighted with streaks of red.
For the moment her energy and feistiness were gone. He couldn't leave her like that.
"Lacey, I can take her to the station," Jay offered, knowing she wouldn't accept. She scraped leftovers from plates at the diner to feed stray cats; he doubted she would turn away her sister and that baby.
Corry moved closer to Lacey. The younger sister had the baby now, holding the infant in one arm and the dingy backpack in the other. Her eyes, blue, rather than Lacey's dark brown, shimmered with tears.
Lacey was motionless and silent, staring at her sister and the baby.
"I have to take the baby somewhere, Lace. The guy who dropped me off at the city limits was going south, way south. I don't have a way back to St. Louis."
"I'm not going to turn my back on you, Corry. But as long as you're here, you have to stay clean and stay out of trouble."
"If it helps, I checked her bag and she doesn' t have anything on her." Jay could tell when Lacey bit down on her bottom lip and studied her sister that this information didn't really help.
He shrugged because he didn't know what else to do. The two sisters were eyeing one another, the baby was fussing and his radio squawked a call. He stepped away from the two women and answered the county dispatcher.
"Sorry, I have to run, but if you need anything" he handed Lacey a card with his cell phone number "I'm just a phone call away."
"Thanks, Jay. We'll be fine." She took the card and shoved it into her pocket without looking at him.
"That's fine, but just in case." He shifted his attention to her sister. He had a strong feeling that Corry wasn't really here looking for a place to start over.
As he got into his patrol car and looked back, he saw Lacey standing on the sidewalk looking a little lost. He'd never seen that look on her face before, like she wasn't sure of her next move.
He brushed off the desire to go back. He knew he couldn't help her. Lacey was a force unto herself, independent and determined. He was pretty sure she didn't need him, and more than positive he didn't want to get involved.
Lacey watched Jay Blackhorse drive away before turning to face Corry again. The front door of the diner opened and Lacey's boss, Jolynn, stepped outside.
"Honey, if you need to take off early, go ahead. We can handle it for thirty minutes without you." Jolynn smiled at Corry.
Lacey wished she could do the same. She wished that seeing her sister here didn't make her feel as if her life in Gibson was in danger.
"I can stay." Lacey picked up the backpack that Corry had tossed on the ground.
"No, honey, I insist. Go home." Jolynn patted her arm. "Take your sister on up to your place and get her settled."
Lacey closed her eyes and counted to ten. She could do this. "Okay, thank you. I'll grab my purse. But if you need "
"We don't need. You're here too much as it is. It won't hurt you to go home a few minutes early."
Lacey stepped back inside the cool, air-conditioned diner with Jolynn, and pretended people weren't staring, that they weren't whispering and looking out the window at her sister.
She pretended it didn't bother her. But it did. It bothered her to suddenly become the outsider again, after working so hard to gain acceptance. It bothered her that Jay Blackhorse never looked at her as though she belonged.
Jolynn gave her a light hug when she walked her to the door. "You're a survivor, Lacey, and you'll make it through this. God didn't make a mistake, bringing that young woman to you."
Lacey nodded, but she couldn't speak. Jolynn smiled and opened the door for her. Lacey walked out into the hot July day. Corry had taken a seat on the bench and she stood up.
"Ready?" Lacey picked up her sister's bag.
"Where's your car?"
"I walk to work."
"We have to walk?"
Lacey took off, letting Corry follow along behind her. Her sister mumbled and the baby whimpered in the infant seat. Lacey glanced back, the backpack and diaper bag slung over her shoulder, at her sister who carried the infant seat with the baby.
As they walked up the long driveway to the carriage-house apartment Lacey had lived in for over six years, Corry mumbled a little louder.
Lacey opened the door to her apartment and motioned her sister inside. The one room with a separate bathroom and a walk-in closet was less than five hundred square feet. Corry looked around, clearly not impressed.
"You've been living in a closet." Corry smirked. "And I thought you were living on Walton's Mountain."
Ignore it. Let it go. Push the old Lacey aside. "I think you should feed the baby."
"Ya think? So now you're a baby expert."
The old Lacey really wanted to speak up and say something mean. The new Lacey smiled. "I'm not an expert."
Corry had done nothing but growl since they'd left the diner. Obviously she needed a fix. And she wasn't going to get one.
"Is there another room?"
"No, there isn't. We'll make do here until I can get something else." Lacey looked around the studio apartment that had been her home since she'd arrived in Gibson.
The home she would have to give up if Corry stayed in Gibson. Starting over again didn't feel good. The baby whimpered. A six-week-old child, dependent on the adults in her life to make good choices for her.
Starting over for a baby. Lacey could do that. She would somehow make it work. She would do her best to help Corry, because that meant the baby had a chance.
Corry tossed her backpack into a corner of the room and dumped the baby, crying and working her fist in her mouth, onto the hide-a-bed that Lacey hadn't put up that morning.
Lacey lifted the baby to her shoulder and rubbed the tiny back until she quieted. Corry had walked to the small kitchen area and was rummaging through the cabinets.
"You know, Corry, since you're here, wanting a place to live, maybe you should try being nice."
"I am being nice." Corry turned from the cabinets and flashed a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "And your boyfriend is cute."
"He isn't my boyfriend." Lacey walked across the room, the baby snuggling against her shoulder. She couldn't let her sister bait her. She couldn't let her mind go in that direction, with Jay Blackhorse as the hero that saved the day. "Corry, if you're going to be here, there are a few rules."
"Rules? I'm not fourteen anymore."
"No, you're not fourteen, but this is my house and my life that you've invaded."
Lacey closed her eyes and tucked the head of the baby against her chin, soft and safe. Be fair, she told herself. "I'm sorry, Corry, I know you need a place for the baby."
"I need a place for myself, too."
"I know that, and I'm willing to help. But I have to know that you're going to stay clean. You can't play your games in Gibson."
Corry turned, her elfin chin tilted and her eyes flashing anger. "You think you're so good, don't you, Lacey? You came to a small town where you pretend to be someone you're not, and suddenly you're too good for your family. You're afraid that I'm going to embarrass you."
"I'm not too good for my family. And it isn't about being embarrassed." It was about protecting herself, and the people she cared about.
It was about not being hurt or used again. And it was about keeping her life in order. She had left chaos behind when she left St. Louis.
"You haven't been home in three years." Corry shot the accusation at her, eyes narrowed.
No, Lacey hadn't been home. That accusation didn't hurt as much as the one about her pretending to be someone she wasn't.
Maybe because she hoped if she pretended long enough, she would actually become the person she'd always believed she could be. She wouldn't be the girl in the back of a patrol car, lights flashing and life crumbling. She wouldn't be the young woman at the back of a large church, wondering why she couldn't be loved without it hurting.
She wouldn't be invisible.
Lacey shifted the fussing baby to one side and grabbed the backpack and searched for something to feed an infant. She found one bottle and a half-empty can of powdered formula.
"Feed your daughter, Corry.
Excerpted from The Cowboy Next Door by Brenda Minton Copyright © 2009 by Brenda Minton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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