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"You no-good, rotten thief!" Maggie Stevens stomped across the trampled grass of the fairgrounds and tried not to spill the frothy beer from the plastic cups she held in her hands. "You're stealing my man!"
Kyle Greeley shot her a sardonic grin and continued to peel bills from the large roll of money. By the time Maggie reached him he'd handed over at least a hundred dollars to the cowboy standing next to himher cowboy.
"Not man, babe," Kyle said. "Men."
"What do you mean, 'men'?"
She shot a look at Spence Wilson, one of the hired hands who'd worked for her for the last few months. Then she saw Charlie Bain step from the shadows, his gaze locked on his boots.
She should've known.
While spending a beautiful summer day enjoying Destiny, Wyoming's, Fourth of July Celebration with her daughter and grandmother, she'd seen neither hide nor hair of her cowboys.
"It's nothin' personal, Miz Stevens," Spence said. "We enjoy workin' at the Crescent Moon, but Mr. Greeley's pay is too good to pass up."
Maggie fumed. The dangling carrot of more pay had charmed away ranch handsat least her young and strong onesonce again. They took the bait like a pair of hungry rabbits.
You did, too, at one time.
Okay, so a few candlelight dinners wasn't cold, hard cash, but she'd been enamored all the same by Kyle's smooth-talking ways. Then she'd found out what a scumbag he really was.
Kyle leaned into her. "You know, Maggie, you could be quite comfortable if you'd accept my offer for your land. Buy yourself a place in town, spend more time with your daughter, get yourself a man "
She glanced at the beer, trying to control her anger andthe urge to dump the liquid over his head. She gritted her teeth. "I've told you before, my land isn't for sale."
Movement caught her eye, and she saw her former employees scurry into the shadows of the darkened barns and empty animal corrals.
She looked back at Kyle. "Why stop with those two? Why not wipe me out completely and go after Willie and Hank, too?"
"Those old coots should've been put out to pasture years ago." He stepped closer, wrapping a finger around a strand of hair that had worked loose from her ponytail. "Admit it, you can't handle all that land, cattle and horses."
Maggie jerked her chin, freeing his hold. "Go to hell, Kyle."
She headed for the bright lights of the raised wooden platform beyond a cluster of cottonwoods. He fell into step beside her.
"I remember a time when you didn't want me to stay away."
She shook her head, barely able to tolerate that she'd once been taken in by his baby-blue eyes, chiseled cheekbones and charming lies. "Three months," she said. "Three months of romancing me to get my land."
He smirked. "Sometimes a man's got to make sacrifices. I never could figure what Alan saw in you. Then I realized he'd stuck around to get his hands on your ranch."
She spun to him, furious. "Well, he didn't. And you can forget about getting your hands on it, too."
They'd reached the trees. Kyle leaned in and grabbed her arms. Whiskey laced his breath. She mentally kicked herself for not noticing sooner. Sober, Kyle was annoying, but after a few drinks, he could get downright mean.
"I can put my hands any damn place I please," he said.
A flash of a buried memory caused Maggie's stomach to lurch. Beer splashed over the edges of the cups and dripped over her fingers. "You bastard," she choked. "Take your hands off me."
"Not until I'm good and ready."
A flicker of panic coursed through her, but anger snuffed it out. "Get ready now or you're going to find yourself with a face full of Budweiser."
"You wouldn't dare"
With an angry flick of her wrist, she launched the contents of the cups at him. He jumped back, releasing her with a shove. "Goddammit!"
The liquid splashed on Kyle's fancy, snap-button shirt and her sundress, leaving enough for round two. "Don't dare me anything." A step backwards took her deeper into the trees. "Back off."
Greeley seized her again, his blunt nails digging into her arms. "You're gonna pay"
"She told you to leave her alone."
Maggie froze as a low, commanding voice rumbled over her shoulder.
Actually, it came more from over the top of her head. She was acutely conscious of a man towering behind her. Overwhelming her. The husky tone causing a ripple of what? Need? Awareness?
Annoyance crossed Kyle's face. "This is none of your business, Cartwright."
"Maybe not, but the lady's made her feelings quite clear."
"Let me be clear." Kyle took a step closer, his attention focused over Maggie's head as his hands tightened on her. "If you want to keep your job, I suggest you turn and walk away."
The man behind her took a step closer. "Let. Her. Go." His voice grew harder with each word.
Kyle flicked his gaze back to Maggie. "We still got business between us." He dropped his hands and stepped back. "Don't bother showing up at the Triple G tonight, Cartwright. In fact, I suggest you leave Destiny. For good."
Spinning around, Greeley vanished into the darkness.
Oh, boy, that was she wasn't sure what that was, other than Kyle being his usual idiotic self. A deep breath helped. Maggie turned to thank her rescuer, but her foot caught on a tree root, and she stumbled backwards.
A pair of strong hands clamped her waist, pulling her back against a solid chest and rock-hard thighs. The man's jaw brushed her hair, a rush of hot breath flowed over her ear.
Twisting in his grasp, she tipped her head back to look at his face. Intense eyes stared at her from beneath the crown of a black Stetson. Dark stubble outlined his mouth and covered his jaw. A shiver she couldn't control raced through her. He dropped his hands and took a step back.
Maggie struggled to speak. "Thank you for, well, thank you."
"No problem." He tucked in his chin, effectively blocking her attempt to peer further under the wide brim of his hat. "You okay?"
"Y-yes." She nodded. "I'm fine."
"You better get going before he decides to come back."
Before she could reply, her rescuer stepped around her and followed Kyle into the darkness. She watched his tall form disappear, trying to ignore the sudden rush of butterflies zooming around her stomach. Placing the blame for them firmly on Greeley, she glanced at what remained of the beer. Racy and Leeann were waiting for her. She'd better get moving. Mindful of the tree roots, she headed toward the crowded dance area.
Maggie offered a few hellos to familiar faces before she caught sight of her best friend in the middle of the dance floor with her seventy-year-old ranch hand. Willie tried his best to keep pace with Racy, who was four decades his junior, but like everyone else, he was distracted by her flame-red curls and undulating curves.
The dance ended and Racy joined Maggie. "Boy, Willie can still do a mean two-step." She grabbed one of the cups. "About time you got here. Where've you been? And what happened to my beer?"
Maggie poured the remains of her drink into Racy's. "I got sidetracked."
Maggie ignored the question, renewing her determination not to let Kyle Greeley's antics spoil her fun. "Where's Leeann? I thought she was meeting us."
"Her beeper chirped about ten minutes ago."
"I thought Gage gave her the night off."
"Yeah, well, being a deputy in a small town means you're always on call. Besides, you know Sheriff Steele," Racy snorted. "All work and no play makes for a pain-in-the"
Maggie cut her off, tired of her friend's nasty comments about the local lawman. "High school's long gone, Racy. Let it go."
Maggie raised an eyebrow.
Racy flushed. "Let's not waste time on ancient history. Where's your grandmother and Anna?"
"Nana B. went back to the ranch after collecting her blue ribbons, and Anna's sleeping over at a friend's house."
Racy's face lit up with a bright smile. "So, you're a swinging single tonight. Honey, let's find someone to push that swing!"
Flashes of denim, tanned skin and a black cowboy hat filled Maggie's head. It'd been dark among the trees, but she easily recalled broad shoulders, shirtsleeves rolled tight against strong forearms and long legs encased in snug jeans.
Maggie pushed away the details and focused on her friend. "Don't you ever give up? I told you, I'm not interested. And unless you've forgotten, I've got a few things on my mind. Especially now. Greeley walked off with Spence and Charlie tonight."
"Those low-down, belly-crawlin' snakes! And you thought they had staying power. What are you going to do now?"
What was she going to do? She needed help. Hopefully the ads she'd placed all over town would bring in some fresh faces. "The same thing I've been doing all along," she replied, "keep on keeping on."
"Well, not tonight. Tonight is for fun and what you need is a red-hot cowboy who'll leave you too sore to move and too tired to care."
"What I need is to get home. I've got a pile of paperwork waiting and"
"Oh, come on. It's a holiday!" Racy finished the last of the beer and tossed the cup in the nearby trash. "We're celebrating our country's independence, not to mention our own. Besides, the place is swarming with hunky cowboys."
"Forget it, I'm not interested."
"Look, I'm gonna find me a dance partner and I suggest you do the same. Then another and another." She offered a quick wink. "Personally, I'm shooting for double digits."
Maggie watched as Racy latched onto the closest cowboy and led him onto the dance floor.
"How long does it take to reach zero?" she muttered.
Those were his chances of getting another job in this dot-on-the-map town called Destiny. Great place for an out-of-luck cowboy like him.
Landon walked across the teeming fairgrounds. The sun had set, and clusters of teenagers and families enjoyed the game booths and carnival rides that twirled in bright splashes of neon color.
He sidestepped an excited little girl carrying a prized stuffed animal and a breath-stealing squeeze compressed his chest. Shoving a hand deep into his pocket, his fingers curled around a familiar oval object. His boots shuffled to a stop and he closed his eyes against the memory before it had a chance to bring him to his knees.
It took a long moment, but he succeeded. Breathing deep, he opened his eyes and spotted the sheriff chatting with a group of men. Giving a tug on his Stetson, Landon pulled it lower on his brow. If there was anything he'd learned in the last few months, it was that the law was best avoided.
Hunger gnawed at his belly as he ducked into the food aisle, but he ignored the battling aromas of fried hot dogs and spun candy. The fifty dollars tucked in his pocket would have to last until he was employed again. After standing up for that lady, he was hell and gone from his next possible job three hundred miles away.
But what a lady.
Honey-colored hair and a sweet, fresh scent. Despite a shapeless dress, he could attest, thanks to having her body pressed to his, she had curves in all the right places. He hadn't meant to get so close, but the weight of her body against his and the feel of her hair catching on his whiskers stayed with him.
Then she'd looked at him. A flash of somethinglonging, maybecame through the anger and fear. A warning bell had gone off inside his head.
He'd ignored his own advice long enough to make sure she was okay, then followed his former boss to make sure the jerk didn't come back.
Damn, he needed a job.
Greeley's ranch was the largest in the area. The man meant it when he told him to get out of town. Big ranches and their owners carried a lot of power in small communities.
Landon headed to the far end of the parking lot where he'd left his truck and horse trailer. The dark shadows and relative quiet were the most he could offer his best friend right now. Hell, G.W. was his only friend, and the main reason for pulling off the highway earlier today.
"Hey, boy," he said as he stepped inside the trailer and moved beside the stallion. "How's the leg?"
He crouched down, murmuring softly as he ran his hands along G.W.'s forelimb, checking the area around the shipping boot. The horse snorted softly and shifted away.
"I know you hate these things, but it should help with the swelling."
Landon had first noticed the horse favoring his leg the night he'd been not-so-politely told to leave his last job. Being on the road the last seven days meanthe'd done a piss-poor job of icing the injury. He needed to find a place for the two of them to bunk down for a while, so he could take care of G.W. properly.
Three jobs since his release, three times told to move on.
He'd been foolish enough to reveal his conviction the first time. Never again. Now he did his best to keep to himself, but somehow the news always got out.
His stomach growled again. He opened the chest in the corner and found it empty. The ice packs were only slightly cool.
He leaned his head against the side of his horse. "I'm going to grab some chow and another bag of ice. Be back in a few."
He stroked a hand over G.W.'s smooth coat, then exited and locked the trailer, heading toward the market across the street. Bright fluorescent lights shone on a woman behind the counter when he entered.
Was that wariness on her face?
He offered a quick, polite nod then walked to the first aisle. Five minutes later, he'd moved back to the cashier when a dogeared piece of paper on a bulletin board caught his attention. The words "Wanted: Cowboys" jumped out at him.
Damn, he must be crazy.
He yanked the paper off the board and shoved it into his pocket. After paying for his stuff, he crossed the road back to the parking lot with a sandwich, a cold soda and a bag of ice. He peeled back the plastic wrapping around the day-old bread with his teeth. It was stale, but he hoped it would cover the bad taste in his mouth left by the store clerk's apprehension.
His hair was too long and he was a week away from his last shave. Maybe that's all it was. Or maybe it was because he was a stranger in a small town. She'd beamed at the two clean-cut cowboys with pressed snap-buttoned shirts and shiny belt buckles who'd come up behind him, obviously knowing them.
Landon shrugged off his mood and finished the sandwich in two bites. He wasn't usually filled with his own thoughts. Not since his release. Before, he'd had plenty of time to think. Now he preferred a hard day' s work that left him too tired for anything but sleep. Something he hadn't done much of over the last week.