A popular author delivers a charming contemporary romance set in beautiful West Texas.
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Jenna's CowboyA Novel
By Sharon Gillenwater
RevellCopyright © 2010 Sharon Gillenwater
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCallahan Crossing had changed some while he'd been gone. But then, so had he. A man couldn't fight for his country and not be affected by it. Nate Langley had served with honor, and according to his army commanders, courage. Which he figured really meant he was as bullheaded as his father had always said he was.
But some things ran deeper than love of country, such as family loyalty and duty. It was time to protect those he loved by tilling the land his family had owned for almost a hundred years. Time to help his father, who could no longer handle the load of running a farm alone.
Thumbing through the latest issue of Western Horseman magazine, he glanced down the aisle of Miller's Grocery toward the deli. The roasted chickens were still turning in the rotisserie, so he'd have to wait awhile longer. He'd already picked up the new battery for his truck, and it would be at least twenty minutes before UPS delivered the tractor part his dad had ordered from the farm implement store. Killing time at Miller's was preferable to listening to long-winded fishing tales any day.
Halfway down the aisle, two elderly ladies stopped by the birthday cards for a chat, their West Texas twang bringing a smile to his face. At the other end, two high schoolboys stopped while one of them scribbled on some paper attached to a clipboard.
Nate's smile widened into a grin. It was the last week in September, traditionally the time for the local newspaper subscription drive. It was usually handled by two or three clubs at the high school as a fund-raiser, but he hadn't heard which ones were competing this time around. It was also homecoming week, and judging by the boys' appearance, Costume Day was still part of the celebration.
One was dressed as a stereotypical TV geek-pants a couple of inches too short, white socks and black loafers, white shirt with a plastic pocket protector holding pens and a short ruler, slicked-back hair, and dark-rimmed glasses. The other guy, who probably played tackle on the football team, wore a purple tie-dyed loose cotton T-shirt, yellow flowered bell-bottom pants, and sandals. An orange flower painted on his cheek clashed with a shoulder-length, cheap pink wig.
Pinky glanced up toward the checkout counters and tilted his head, giving somebody the eye. "We haven't asked her."
"Quit staring at her like that." The Geek made a face. "Dude, she's old, and she's got purple hair."
"Just a couple of stripes for school spirit. So she's cool."
"Well, yeah ..."
"She may be old, but she's still lookin' good." Pinky moved out of sight. The Geek rolled his eyes and followed.
Curious to see who they were talking about, Nate tossed the magazine into the cart and moved down the aisle. He stopped and peeked around an end display of hot dog buns, canned chili, and baked beans.
Jenna Callahan Colby.
Pinky was right about one thing. She did look good. Nate supposed that to a teenager, twenty-eight was old. Since he was a year older, he didn't have a problem with it. She was still slender, with an athletic build. Her red hair, short now instead of shoulder length, was cut in a simple layered, flattering style. She wore a short-sleeved shiny gold top, close enough to the school colors to count. Her slacks and the purple stripes in her hair were a perfect match to the letterman's jacket hanging in his bedroom closet at the farm.
He drew back and watched her between the shelves while she teased the boys.
Her turquoise eyes sparkled as she gave Pinky the once over. "So are you in the drama club?"
He shook his head, the pink hair flopping across his face.
"Is there a hippie commune around here that I don't know about?"
Pinky chuckled and shoved a clump of wig out of his eyes. "No, ma'am. At least I haven't heard of one."
"How about you?" Jenna turned to the Geek. "Science or math?"
The kid grinned, but his face turned bright red. "Looks like I should be in one of those, huh?" He tipped his head toward his friend. "We're in FFA."
"No! Well, you certainly fooled me. Great costumes."
A wave of nostalgia swept over Nate. The Geek was right-he and Jenna were old. He'd been in FFA a lifetime ago. For years, the letters had stood for Future Farmers of America. About the time he hit high school, the organization changed the name simply to FFA since there were many more facets to agriculture education than farming. He supposed that was progress, but he'd always think of farmers like his dad when he heard the name.
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the lady at the deli waving at him. She held up a couple of packages. The roasted chickens were ready. He nodded, then absently picked up a can of chili and some hot dog buns and started toward the deli, hoping nobody had noticed that he had been watching Jenna.
Nate had fallen in love with her the summer he was fifteen when his horse threw him into the big, water-filled dirt stock tank, and she hadn't laughed. She'd watched him with a tiny frown of concern as he sat up, sputtering muddy water and dying of embarrassment. Then she asked if he was all right. Momentarily hurting too much to move, he stayed put and forced a grin. When he plopped his wet Stetson on his head, she dismounted, took off her boots, and waded in to cool off.
Between the time she got off her horse and sat down beside him in the water, he was a goner. He'd been crazy about her all through high school, although he never told anyone, not even her. He'd tried hard to keep his feelings hidden whenever he was around her and especially at her father's ranch, where he sometimes worked.
He'd slipped up once his senior year, watching as she walked to the house from the barn. Her father, Dub, noticed and flat-out told him that he wouldn't take kindly to a part-time cowboy making a move on his little princess. Though Dub liked him, the tough rancher didn't pull any punches in letting him know he wasn't good enough for his daughter. When she married, it would be to someone who was going places. And they both knew he wasn't. He was a cowboy at heart, and working the farm came in a close second. Neither occupation would earn more than an honest living.
Nate had only nodded in acceptance. It would have ruined a good friendship if he told her how he felt. By then she'd been crazy in love with Jimmy Don Colby, a high school football star who was being pursued by a dozen colleges.
After graduation, Nate went to work at a ranch in far West Texas and convinced himself that he was over her. That it had been a bad case of puppy love.
Then 9/11 happened, and Nate felt a call that ran deeper than anything he'd ever known. Less than a week after that fateful day, he joined the army. He was in Afghanistan when his mom wrote that Jenna and Jimmy Don had gotten married, and Jimmy had been drafted into pro-football by the Dallas Cowboys. Nate was in Iraq when he heard that she'd had a little boy. Another letter from his mom several months later said that Jenna and Jimmy were getting a divorce because Jimmy had found someone new.
Nate had thought of her often during the lonely nights camped in the windswept sands of the Middle East. Picturing her face, he had silently prayed for her and her son as he drifted off to sleep. In his dreams, he'd seen her smile, heard her whisper his name, felt her fingertips brush his cheek.
He caught another glimpse of her through the store window as she walked to her pickup. A familiar ache tightened his chest, one he thought he had vanquished long ago.
Maybe things hadn't really changed at all.
* * *
Jenna took a deep breath and jumped up in the air a little, pushing on the tire iron with all her strength as she came back down. It didn't budge. The guy at the service station had gotten carried away with the impact wrench the last time he rotated the tires.
She released the tire iron and straightened, huffing out a frustrated breath, silently threatening to wring his neck. She had specifically told him not to tighten the lug nuts so much that she couldn't get them off herself. He knew she lived fifteen miles from town and probably figured he'd make good money driving out to fix a flat. "No way, mister," she muttered.
She decided to call her brother Chance. Reaching through the open pickup door to the passenger seat, she took her cell phone from the outside pocket on her purse and hit the speed dial for his construction company. As she expected, his secretary answered. "Hi, Pat. This is Jenna. Is Chance available?"
"Sorry, he's way out north of town meeting with some potential clients. Do you want me to have him call you when he checks in?"
She could always call him directly, but she didn't want to interrupt his business meeting over a flat tire. "Yes, please. On my cell. Thanks."
Frowning, she considered her options as she hung up. It wouldn't do any good to call the ranch. Her dad and her other brother, Will, had gone up near Lubbock to pick up a new stallion. The ranch hands were wandering across sixty thousand acres on horseback, looking for a wayward bull. Even if she were fortunate enough to reach one of their cell phones, it would be stuffed into a cubbyhole or console in a pickup. By the time they returned to the truck and got her message, Chance probably would have the tire changed.
At least she'd stopped by one of the few trees next to the road, so there was a little shade. She tucked her phone into her pant's pocket and rearranged some of the groceries, putting all the cold stuff into a couple of bags with a frozen package of meat in each one. Normally, she kept a small cooler in the pickup, but she had taken it out to clean a few days earlier and had forgotten to put it back.
Tapping her fingertips on the edge of the truck bed, she glanced at her watch: 3:00. Her mom wasn't expecting her for another hour, so she didn't need to call and make her worry. Mom had assured her that she was free to babysit all afternoon, so Zach was in good hands. He loved having Grandma spoil him.
She plucked the water bottle from the holder by the driver's seat and took a long drink. The weatherman had predicted eighty degrees by mid-afternoon. She figured he had it pegged about right. And she had a carton of ice cream sitting in the backseat melting.
Shrugging, Jenna walked around the extended cab pickup and opened the glove box, rummaging through the odds and ends stashed inside until she found a couple of plastic spoons still sealed in clear bags, remnants of a stop at Dairy Queen.
Taking one of the spoons and the carton of ice cream, she found a comfortable spot in the dry grass beneath the pale green lacy leaves of the mesquite tree and sat down in the shade. She pried the lid off the ice cream and took her first bite. Double chocolate fudge brownie on a hot day. "Mmm ... thank you, Lord, for small blessings."
In the pasture across the road, two Black Angus cows and their calves lay in the green grass beneath a stand of mesquites, swatting at flies with their tails, resting in the afternoon heat. Away from the trees, amid grass baked golden by the summer sun, stood a large valve and gauges on a natural gas pipeline. The gold and green rangeland stretched as far as she could see, ending with a brown mesa on the horizon. The field behind her was full of bright green plants a couple of feet high covered with green bolls of developing cotton.
She'd eaten enough to spoil her supper when she spotted a pickup coming down the road. Debating whether or not to retrieve her pistol from the console between the front seats, she waited a few minutes to see if she recognized the truck. If she didn't, she'd get the gun. A lot of strangers traveled the highway. On rare occasions there had been trouble. A woman stranded alone miles from the nearest house had to be careful.
A few minutes later, Jenna relaxed. It was Tom Langley's pickup. He and his wife, Chris, lived on a farm near the Callahan Ranch. He'd had neck surgery a month earlier, so she was surprised that he was even driving. The challenge now would be to keep him from trying to change the tire.
She went back to the ice cream, watching as the truck slowed and pulled off the road, stopping about ten feet behind her pickup. Jenna stared at the driver, dropping the spoon into the carton.
Nate! She hadn't heard that he was coming home for a visit. Her heartbeat kicked to double time. She had lived elsewhere for several years and never made it to Callahan Crossing when he was home on leave. He still had the same affect on her that he'd had when she was fourteen. Unfortunately, if he'd ever had any romantic ideas, he certainly hadn't given her any hint of it. And she'd never been the kind of girl to chase a guy.
He turned off the engine and opened the door. Was he all right? She'd heard that he'd been burned on the arm and been hit in the leg by shrapnel four months earlier in Iraq. His mother said neither wound had been bad enough for the army to send him back to the States. But he'd been awarded a Purple Heart, so it must have been more than a scratch. He'd earned a Silver Star that day too. There had been a write-up in the local paper about how he saved two badly injured soldiers even though he was also hurt.
Jenna held her breath as he climbed out of the pickup and slowly walked around the front of it. Wow ... He wasn't the six foot tall, rangy cowboy she used to know. This man was all muscle. Not the overdone Mr. Universe type, but either he'd been working with weights or carrying a lot of military gear around. Probably both. His snug, blue, short-sleeved T-shirt emphasized his physique. She had to force herself not to stare at his broad shoulders and thick, solid arms.
He moved fine, so he must not have suffered any permanent injury to his leg. A pink scar on the back of his forearm stood out against his dark tan, but it didn't seem to bother him. And it wasn't bad enough to freak anybody out. He crossed his arms and leaned against the truck fender with a smile, his bright blue eyes twinkling.
Jenna's heart skipped a beat. How could his eyes have gotten even more beautiful?
He scanned the jack waiting near the right rear of the pickup, the tire iron still hanging on a lug nut, and the spare tire lying on the ground. He brushed a strand of light sandy brown hair off his forehead, and his gaze flickered to the ice cream before meeting hers. "Refueling?"
She laughed and stood, walking over to meet him. "I couldn't get the tire off, and the ice cream was melting. Didn't see any sense in wasting it." Setting the carton in the truck bed, she swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. "Welcome home."
Something flashed in his eyes, then he lowered his arms and straightened, taking a step closer. "Don't I get a hug?" Was his voice a little thicker?
Jenna hesitated for a second, then chided herself. This was Nate, her friend. And he was home safe and sound. Quick tears stung her eyes. Thank you, Lord. "You bet."
She slid her arms around his waist and hugged him, resting her face against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her too. What did it matter if he held her a little tighter and a little longer than was customary? She wasn't going to complain.
Still, if she had any sense, she would end it quickly and not risk him thinking she might be open to anything other than friendship. She was a complete failure when it came to romantic relationships. Getting involved with anyone was unthinkable.
When he finally released her and she stepped back, tears stung her eyes. "I'm glad you made it okay."
He gave her a lopsided grin. "Me too." He walked to her truck, but instead of checking the tire, he looked over the tailgate at the ice cream. "You gonna share?"
Jenna laughed, feeling back on solid ground. "Help yourself. If I eat any more I'll make myself sick."
He picked up the carton, grinning when he read the flavor. "I should have known it would be chocolate."
"Is there any other kind?" When he reached for the spoon, she touched his arm to stop him. "There's a clean one in the glove box."
Excerpted from Jenna's Cowboy by Sharon Gillenwater Copyright © 2010 by Sharon Gillenwater. 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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