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By Pamela Britton
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGood thing this was a rental car, Lani Williams thought as she bounced in and out of pothole number 9,121. So far, all of them had been the size of her ex-boyfriend's ego, and that was saying quite a lot. At this rate, her wheels might fly off the vehicle before she got to the Running L Ranch.
"I should've passed on this assignment," she mumbled to herself. "And stayed in New York."
Oh, yeah? And not earned the bonus Mr. Abernathy promised if you complete the job?
"I could have lived without the money."
Like you have been? What about wishing you had a little cushion in the bank? Besides, at least you won't run into Eric the Egomaniac Ex-boy-friend in California.
"Oh, yeah," she answered herself as she rounded a bend. "Forgot."
The small valley she'd just traveled through abruptly opened up. She slammed on the brakes, gravel skittering out from beneath her car's tires. The tiny rental, which could give a MINI Cooper a run for its money, slid a few feet before coming to a stop.
"Dang," she said, straightening behind the wheel. "I wonder where he hides the moonshine."
With the June sun beating down, she had a perfect view of the ranch - or rather, its ruins. A cabin - because she wouldn't dare classify it as a house - stood near a stream that had the good fortune to outsparkle everything around it. The structure used to be ... white, she noted with a squint, but was now as bare of paint and dignity as the big brown barn that stood behind it. And yet it was a peaceful scene, with tall oak trees dotting the property, including a giant one to the cabin's left, its branches bobbing in a slight breeze.
"I've got my work cut out," she said, pressing down on the accelerator and shaking her head. Branches flicked shadows across her car as she approached.
A closer look didn't help. Piloting her car across the creek over a pair of board-covered railroad trestles that Lani feared would collapse, she followed a road that ran along a tree-studded stream to her left, then pulled to a stop in front of a yard that was in serious need of a trim. The tall dried grass and overgrown shrubs were a fire hazard. So was the once-white picket fence whose gate hung despairingly off its hinges.
"Dang," she said again as she stared out the passenger window.
Bam. The fist hit her driver's window a second time. Her foot slipped off the clutch, and the car stalled with a jerk causing her seat belt to lock in place. Flinching, she waited for the air bag to inflate.
"Thank goodness," she muttered, blinking at the dash.
Her car door opened.
"I beg your pardon." She turned to the person who'd opened it, only to gulp as she got her first shot of Chase Cavenaugh. She'd seen him on TV, but that in no way prepared her for an up close and personal view of the man.
"Who the heck are you?" he growled. "Never mind." His eyes were the exact color of the blue ribbons she used to win at the California State Fair. "I don't care who you are. Get off my land."
"I -" Her gaze darted from the top of his black cowboy hat, brown hair peeking out beneath it, to his snug-fitting tan chaps and sterling silver belt buckle with a bull on it and some kind of writing. She couldn't help it. Her eyes just went off on their own little thrill-seeking tangent, straying to a certain area that those chaps left exposed -
"Now," he added.
She pulled her gaze back up. To be honest, she'd wanted to meet country music's newest star, even if he didn't exactly want to be that star.
"I can't leave," she finally said. "I'm supposed to be here."
"You're a reporter, aren't you?"
"No," she said, gulping again as he leaned down into her boxy little rental and she caught a whiff of him. It was a scent that couldn't be bought in a store, a musky, earthy smell that sent her hormones into overdrive.
"How'd you get in here? The gate's locked."
"Actually," she said, "it wasn't. In fact, I'm surprised one of the news vans didn't figure that out before I did."
"Get off my land," he repeated, his square jaw hard. "I'm not giving any interviews, especially to reporters who trespass."
"I'm not a reporter," she said again. "I work for Abernathy and Cornblum."
"A PR firm."
"A PR firm?"
Lani decided it was time to take control of the situation. Well, all right, perhaps that was slightly optimistic. Chase Cavenaugh was one handsome man. And he knocked her for a loop.
Excerpted from Cowboy Trouble by Pamela Britton Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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