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Taming The Outlaw
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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Chapter OneWhen Cutter Reno drifted out of Sundown, Montana, six years ago, he'd always figured he'd be back someday. He had friends here. He had memories here, some good, some not so good. And he supposed, in the overall scheme of things, Sundown came as close to "home" as any place he'd landed in his twenty-six years.
What he hadn't figured on was that when he did finally make an appearance it would be as the grand marshall of the annual Fourth of July parade.
Guess that goes to show how much he knew. He'd never counted on winning back-to-back National PRCA saddle bronc championships, either. And as it turned out, it was the celebrity status of the championships that had prompted his old buddy, Sam Perkins, to track him down and asked him to come back to lead the parade.
He shifted in the saddle and smiled at the faces lining the street. Then he tried not to think about the competitions and the money he was missing out on.
"Half the county will turn out to see you in the parade tomorrow," Sam had told him last night when they'd gotten together at the Dusk to Dawn Bar to catch up. "Why, it's downright huge."
By Sundown, Montana, population four hundred and seventy-three, standards, Cutter supposed it was a pretty big deal. Close as he could figure, it wasfour blocks long - a new record according to Sam - as it snaked with dogged enthusiasm along the length of Main Street strung with red, white and blue banners. Among the highlights was a twenty-one piece all-school marching band.
"Yeah, we'd a' had twenty-two marchers if Billy Capper hadn't busted his nose in the softball game yesterday when his face connected with Joe Gillman's bat." This from Snake Gibson, a barrel-chested old wrangler who'd joined in on the bull-slinging at the bar last night.
The consensus, over cold longnecks and shelled peanuts, was that since Sundown had beaten neighboring Shueyville in a ninth-inning squeaker, Billy's absence would be missed but not overly mourned.
The band seemed to be holding their own without him, too, Cutter thought, as they sweltered in their red wool uniforms, desperately tried to keep close ranks and belt out a Sousa march. It was a shame they were working so hard, though, because for all their efforts, he was a little embarrassed to discover that all eyes were turned on him.
Well, almost all eyes, Cutter conceded as he spotted a six-year-old memory that should have worked its way out of his system by now. The moment he saw Peg Lathrop, Cutter lost all awareness of the summer sun beating down, burning through his gray-and-black plaid shirt.
The band, the laughter and the cheers from the crowd all faded to background noise as Cutter shifted to autopilot, automatically reining in the big bay gelding when it crow-hopped away from an escaped red balloon. He was only aware of the chestnut-haired woman who moved purposefully along the fringe of the route, avoiding his gaze like she was practicing a religion.
"Ain't he just the cat's meow."
Peg Lathrop crossed her arms beneath her breasts and gave her friend, Krystal Perkins, a tight smile. "Well, you've got the cat part right. What he is, is what he always was - an alley cat with an attitude."
Didn't look like he'd changed a bit, either, Peg decided, watching him wave to the cheering crowd from astride the big gelding the parade committee had arranged for him to ride. With effort, she schooled her gaze away from Cutter Reno's lean rangy angles and slow, seductive grins. Then she told herself that seeing him again didn't hurt. She wasn't angry with him anymore, either. It might have been easier to forgive him, though, if he hadn't known exactly what effect he had on women. Just like he knew exactly what result he was after. Lay 'em and leave 'em.
"Would ya just look at him?" Krystal continued, shaking her head in awe. "Lord above but he's pretty."
Peg had been trying not to look. She straightened her shoulders and scowled at Krystal whose turned-up nose, flashing green eyes and short brown hair had a tendency to make people dismiss her as flighty when in fact she was as grounded as an oak. She was also the most happily married woman Peg knew.
"Sam catches you drooling over Reno like that and you may be looking for an alley to sleep in yourself."
Krystal laughed and hiked her ice-cream-cone-wielding two-year-old son, Grant, higher on her hip. "No crime in lookin' at the package," she said, as Grant smeared chocolate ice cream from his chin to his chest and gave his momma a sticky smile. "As long as the only place I go lookin' for love is with the little guy's daddy here, right baby boy?"
The reference to his father had Grant warming to his current favorite phrase. "Where Daddy go? Where Daddy go?" His brown eyes danced as he bounced on his momma's hip, making a game of it.
"Daddy's on the fire truck, punkin'. You watch. He'll be comin' along pretty soon now. And Momma will just watch that ole alley cat till Daddy gets here, okay?"
Peg snorted. "You make sure you grow up to be like your daddy, Grant." She patted the little boy's back with affection. "Good men like him are hard to find."
And even harder to keep, she thought as her gaze involuntarily sought, then connected with the stunning brilliance of Cutter Reno's slashing smile.
Peg froze the moment their gazes caught and held. As Grant continued to chatter in the background, she felt the warming pleasure in Cutter's summer-blue eyes - and the rabbit-run beat of her heart as it kicked up and thumped her in the chest.
Tearing her gaze away, she gripped her five-year-old daughter's hand tightly in hers and told herself she wasn't running. "Come on, Shell. I see Grampa Jack. Let's go find out if he's got a spot picked out to watch the fireworks tonight."
"But I wanna see the rest of the parade," Shelby protested, planting her tiny scuffed red cowboy boots on the sun-softened asphalt.
Peg looked down at her very own grubby little rainbow. The fine blond hair peeking out beneath her lavender cowboy hat was damp and curling with sweat and escaping in little wisps from twin Annie Oakley braids. Her yellow sunsuit was stained with the same chocolate ice cream as Grant's shirt; her cherub face was pink from the sun and the heat and flushed with excitement. Startlingly blue eyes sparkled with stubborn determination.
"I bet you can see it better from Grampa's shoulders."
Peg knew she'd won the point when Shelby made a beeline for Jack Lathrop who was standing with a group of his cronies at the end of the block.
Excerpted from Taming The Outlaw by Gerard Copyright © 2002 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.