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The Heart Of A Cowboy
By Charlene Sands
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCase Jarrett pulled his truck up to Red Ridge Ranch and heaved a heavy sigh. He glanced at the ranch house he'd grown up in. After months away busting broncs on the rodeo circuit and silently grieving the death of his brother, Reid, he was back now.
Bounding out of the king cab, Case lifted his Stetson off his head to run a hand through his dark hair. Arizona heat coiled around him like a diamondback snake tightening about his body. He welcomed the familiar swamping and took in a deep breath of dust-laden air, then returned his hat to his head.
He had a promise to keep and wondered how Sarah, his brother's widow, would react to his moving back home. Hell, he'd debated his decision over and over in his mind and hadn't come up with any other way to protect his family home and keep the promise he'd made to Reid on his deathbed.
Case had kept his distance for five months - since the funeral - but Sarah was eight months pregnant now and Case couldn't justify his staying away any longer. He was needed here. Always had been. Guilt yanked at him hard. If he'd been here, seeing to the Triple R, helping out, maybe Reid wouldn't have died so tragically. His brother would still be alive to witness the birth of his first child.
Instead Reid wasburied in the family plot five miles up the road. Case had stopped by on his way in, noting the fresh batch of wildflowers on his grave. Sarah, no doubt, had laid down those flowers. When the front screen slapped open, Case snapped his head up. Sarah stood on the front porch, just outside the door and her expression, that momentary sign of hope, slammed into his gut. Disappointment registered quickly on her face when she recognized him. Being an identical twin brother had had its share of benefits at an earlier age, especially where Sarah was concerned, but now, his very appearance was a constant reminder to her of the husband that she'd lost. She did a fine job of covering up, but Case knew beyond a doubt that for one instant before reason and reality set in, Sarah thought she was seeing the man she had married.
Take care of Sarah for me, Case, and the baby, too. Reid's dying words echoed in his head. He'd made the promise while Reid was drawing his last breath. But Case hadn't stayed on too long after the funeral. He'd headed back to the rodeo straight away.
Sarah was in good hands, he'd told himself. Her sister Delaney and her two young daughters had come to spend time on the ranch, keeping Sarah company, helping her cope with her loss and the pregnancy. Case knew she'd been taken care of then, but summer was over now and Delaney was gone. She'd taken her children back to California when the new school session began.
A hefty dose of conscience had struck Case while pulling back a pint of Jack Daniels and he'd called Sarah from Denver one night. She'd been crying, but darn her stubborn pride, tried her best to disguise it. Sarah Johnston Jarrett couldn't lie worth a damn.
Case knew then, he had to come home. For Sarah and for Reid. The irony was, that for all his good intentions, he now had to come face-to-face with the woman he'd been avoiding for the past six years. The woman he'd secretly wanted. The only woman in the entire state of Arizona who could make him break out in a sweat with one pretty smile.
Case had his share of beautiful women, but no one compared to Sarah, in his mind. He'd envied his brother but never once begrudged Reid his happiness. Reid deserved every single ounce of joy he could attain. He'd been a good man, solid, dependable, a man Case had been proud to call brother.
If only Case had stayed on at the ranch.
But Case couldn't live under the same roof with Sarah. He couldn't afford for anyone to find out, that Case Jarrett, ladies' man and all-around bad boy, had fallen hard for his brother's girl. The day they married, Case took off, leaving the ranch, claiming a need to sow his oats and ride rodeo.
"Hello, Case," Sarah said, from just outside the front door. She moved to the porch post and leaned against it. She was heavy with child now and her movements seemed labored. There would be no grand greeting for him, no happy welcome home. He couldn't say he deserved it, either, but often he wished just once, Sarah's eyes would light for him, the way they'd always done for Reid.
"Sarah," Case said, nodding and removing his hat.
They stared awkwardly at each other for a moment. Then Case lifted his boot heels and headed her way. Red dust swirled under him as he ate up the yard with long measured strides until he faced Sarah. Her sweet flowery scent knocked his senses for a loop. How the woman always managed to smell so damn good, Case couldn't figure.
"What are you doing here?" she asked cautiously, checking him over from head to toe. "Did you get injured again?"
Case had come home from the rodeo circuit once when he'd busted his ribs from a fall off a feisty bronc named Dynamite Dan. That and for a few days during each Christmas were the only times Case had ever returned to the ranch.
He shook his head and lifted his arms out wide. "Nope. All in one piece this time." She didn't appear relieved. Instead her expression bordered on wary and he knew what question was on her mind - why had he come home? She wouldn't like his answer. She wouldn't take kindly to his return. And for Case, it wouldn't be easy living under the same roof with Sarah, wanting her the way he did, but an equal measure of guilt and honor had brought him home, for good. "Hey, how many babies you have in there?" he asked, glancing at her belly. "Last time I saw you, you could fit inside the barn door."
That comment brought a soft chuckle to her lips. Sarah was beautiful when she smiled. He'd have to get used to seeing those smiles on a daily basis and not react to them. He couldn't let Sarah know what one of her pretty little smiles did to him. "Only one, but he seems to be growing faster than Bobbi Sue's baby heifer." She placed her hand over her abdomen.
Case took in her appearance. Her eyes looked weary, the soft blue ovals were rimmed with red. Subtle contours of her lovely face appeared drawn and tight. And although her golden hair shone like sunshine, Sarah looked exhausted. "You feeling okay, Sarah?"
"You're working too hard," he said, moving a little closer, getting a better look.
Her smile faded some and she took a step back. That was Sarah, always backing off from him, always wary. "I need to keep busy, Case, and there's lots of work to do."
Sarah had been working too hard. Well, that was about to change. Case let his brother down once and that mistake might have cost Reid his life. Case wasn't about to neglect his brother's widow or his unborn child. Not again. He wasn't going to let Sarah work herself into the ground, either. He knew she had a stubborn streak. She was one determined lady who didn't back down from trouble.
Excerpted from The Heart Of A Cowboy by Charlene Sands 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.