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Gage Cooper hit a curve in the road going too fast. His truck slid a little, warning him to slow down. For the first time in a long time, he was in a hurry to get home. Maybe he wasn't ready to face the music or his well-meaning family, but at least home sounded good.
He thought maybe it was the time of year. It was the end of November, and with the holidays coming, winter edging in, it made Dawson, Oklahoma, inviting to a guy who had been on the road a lot. Maybe it was just time to make things right. When a guy looked death in the face, in the form of a one-ton bull, it made him think about how he'd treated the people in his life.
As if the bull hadn't been enough, Granny Myrna Cooper had called him last week to let him know what she thought of him. She'd said he was nearly twenty-seven, and he needed to figure out who he was and what he wanted.
What did he want to do with his life, other than ride bulls?
As the eleventh kid in the Cooper clan, that wasn't so easy a decision. Being second to the last sometimes made him feel like the kid waiting to get picked for a dodgeball team in grade school gym class. The kid that always got picked last. Or second to last.
He topped a hill, George Strait on the radio, his thoughts closing in on the homecoming that would take place in less than five minutes. Suddenly he saw a woman standing on the shoulder of the road as rain poured down. He hit the brakes. The truck slid sideways and came to a shuddering halt as a couple of rangy-looking cows and a calf walked across the paved country road.
The rain-soaked woman brushed hair from her face, and glared at him from where she stood in the ditch. A black-and-white border collie at her side hightailed it toward the cattle. He could ease the truck into first gear and pass on by once the cattle moved out of the road. His attention refocused on the woman standing in the ditch, tiny and pale, big work gloves on small hands.
No, he wasn't going to drive on by. He was a Cooper. Cooper men weren't bred to leave a woman in distress. Man, sometimes he wished they were. The woman standing in that ditch had a bucketful of reasons to dislike him. Good reasons, too.
He parked his truck, sighing as he grabbed his jacket and shoved the door open, easing down, careful not to land on his left leg. Rain poured down. It was the kind of rain that chilled a man to the bone.
The cows scattered. The dog nipped at hooves and the woman, Layla Silver, called a command. She held wire cutters. A big chunk of fence had been cut and the barbed wire pulled back. Why didn't she just run the cattle to the nearest gate?
Gage moved to block the cows from running down the road. Layla ignored him, except to flash him a brief, irritated look. Well deserved. He'd been driving too fast for this road, in this weather.
She moved a little as the dog brought the cattle around.
"Nice driving," she eventually said.
Gage stood his ground, keeping the cows from slipping past his truck. When the cattle moved, he got in behind them, pushing them back to the ditch, in the direction of the fence. He didn't respond to Layla's criticism. He had it coming, and for a lot more than driving so fast.
A heifer tried to break free and turned to run past him.
"Watch that one," Layla shouted, her long brown hair soaked and rain dripping down her face.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts and moved, helping the dog bring the cow back to the herd. The animals moved through the soggy ditch. Gage eased his right leg first because the brace on his left knee didn't have a lot of give, not for stomping through grassy ditches or rounding up cattle.
He was two weeks postsurgery. Maybe he should explain that to Layla, not that she would care. She stood back as the cows and the calf went through the break in the fence and then she grabbed the barbed wire and started making repairs, twisting with pliers held in her gloved hands.
"Let me do that." He reached for the pliers and she looked up, gray eyes big in a pretty face, her mouth twisted into a frown.
"I can do it myself, thank you." She held tight and fixed the fence as he stood there like the jerk he was.
"Why'd you cut the fence?"
"It was cut by someone other than me. I finished it off so I could go ahead and put them back in, then fix it."
"If I knew that, I'd put a stop to it. You can go now."
Yeah, he could, but that would make him a bigger jerk than he'd been years ago. At seventeen he'd been pretty full of himself. A few months short of twenty-seven, he should be making things right. Another fact about a bull headed straight at a guy, it made him want to fix things. His life had flashed before his eyes. Every wrong thing he'd done, and there'd been a lot.
"I'll give you a ride to your place," he offered.
"I can walk."
"Layla, it's pouring and it's cold, just get in the truck."
She shoved the pliers into the pocket of her jacket and stared up at him. Somewhere along the way she'd gotten real pretty. Not made up, overly polished kind of pretty. She was naturally pretty with big gray eyes, sooty lashes and a sweet smile. When she smiled.
"No, you won't. Don't make me have to pick you up and put you in that truck."
"Stop pretending to be a nice guy, Gage Cooper." Her voice broke a little. She turned and started to walk away.
Her house was back down the road and then up her long drive, unless she walked through the field. The rain had gone from steady to a downpour. He reached for her arm, lifted her up off the ground and trudged through the ditch with her. She smacked his back, kicking him to get loose. Gage cringed, because this probably wasn't what his surgeon would call "taking it easy."
With what felt like a wildcat in his arms he climbed the slight incline to his truck, yanked the door open and deposited the soaking wet female on the seat. Man, this was exactly why he didn't play the nice guy. Because it didn't work for him. Women didn't fall over with soft eyes and smiles. They fought him, and in general thought he couldn't do a nice thing unless he was after something in return.
He whistled and told the dog to get in the back before he limped around the front of the truck and climbed in behind the wheel. Layla sat in the passenger seat, shivering. He turned up the heat, shifted into Drive and pulled back onto the road.
"Thank you for helping, Gage. I guess you're not such a bad guy." He mimicked a female voice and saw her lips turn just a little. He went a step further and forced his voice a little deeper than reality. "Why, you're welcome, Layla. And thank you for noticing."
He offered a flirty grin that usually worked. She didn't smile back. She wasn't the kind of woman he was used to.
"You're not a nice guy, but thank you for helping."
"Okay, you get the points for that one. I'm not a nice guy. Where's your brother?" Because the kid had to be a teenager now and old enough to help out.
"I'm not sure."
He let it go because the cool tone of her voice told him it wasn't any of his business. He would drop her off at her place and head on to Cooper Creek Ranch. End of story. Yep, none of his business.
But for some reason those thoughts pulled a long sigh from deep down in his chest. It had a lot to do with that moment on the ground before the bull tried to trample the life out of him. It had to do with facing the past. His past. And now, his past with Layla.
Because Layla was probably the person he'd hurt the most. And then life had hurt her even more. Another reason he was angry with God, he guessed. Layla and Reese, two people who didn't deserve the rotten hands they'd been dealt. Why did good people suffer while Gage walked through life without a care in the world?
Layla closed her eyes for a brief moment to gather her wits and push back the sting of tears. She was so tired. So completely exhausted. She'd been tired for seven years and it wasn't getting any easier. Seven years ago her little brother, Brandon, had been eight years old, and he'd needed her. Now he needed someone with a firmer hand than hers. But she was all he had. They were the last of the Silvers.
Their parents had died in a car accident just months past her nineteenth birthday. Somehow she'd convinced a judge to give her custody of her little brother. Her plans for college, dating, getting married, had ended the day she and Brandon walked through the doors of their house. He had needed her.
The truck slowed, then bounced and bumped up the long driveway to her house. She opened her eyes as they drew close to the little white house she'd been raised in. Her stomach churned, thinking about how hard it had been lately to hold on to it.
She'd lost a decent job in Grove and replaced it with an okay job at the feed store in Dawson. She'd had to take out a loan against the place to put the new roof on last summer and then to pay for the medical bills when Brandon broke his arm.
Gage's voice cut into her thoughts. Why'd he have to sound like he cared? Oh, that's right, because he was good at pretending. For a second she'd almost fallen for it. Again. And that made her feel sixteen and naive. The way she'd been when he'd sat down next to her at lunch one day back in high school. He'd offered her a piece of his mom's pie and then told her he needed help with chemistry.
"I'm good," she answered. She'd fallen in love with him her junior year. He'd walked her to class. He'd taken her to the Mad Cow Cafe; he'd been sweet.
He stopped the truck in front of her house and before she could protest, he walked around to her side to open the door. The last thing she wanted from him was chivalry. She didn't want or need his kindness.
"I said I'm good." She hopped down from the truck. "I didn't get my knee busted up in the world finals or get a concussion that knocked me out for a day."
"But I won." He grinned and she held her breath, because that handsome, cowboy grin with those hazel green eyes of his could do a number on any girl, even one who wasn't interested.
He was scruffy, and sorely needed a shave and a haircut, because his brown hair was shaggy. That made her smile a little, because she liked the thought of the homecoming he'd get looking like something the dog dragged in on the carpet. Ripped jeans, threadbare T-shirt beneath a denim jacket and several days behind in shaving. His mom, Angie Cooper, wouldn't be happy.
"I'm going inside," she announced.
He glanced away from her, to the stack of wood at the side of the house and then up, at the thin stream of smoke coming from the chimney. "I'll grab some wood."
He turned and looked at her. The rain had slowed to a steady drizzle, but drops of moisture dripped from his hat. She swiped at her face and headed to the porch. "Go home."
"I'm going to get you a stack of wood and make you a pot of coffee."
"I drink tea."
"I'll make you a cup of tea."
She stomped up to him. "I don't want you to do this. Your guilt is the last thing I need."
"It isn't " He shrugged off the denial. "I'm going to get you a load of wood in and make you a cup of tea while you get warm."
"I would rather you not. I can get my own firewood and make my own tea."
For a second she thought he might leave. He looked down at her, emotions flickering through his eyes. And then he smiled. "Layla, I'm sorry. It was a long time ago, and I haven't done much to make things right. Let me get the wood. Please."
Contrition. She always fell for it. Every time her little brother said he'd help more or do better, she believed him. Gage had soft eyes that almost convinced her he meant what he said. Besides, she was older now. She could withstand that Cooper charm.
"Okay." She inclined her head to the woodpile. "Thank you."
As he trudged off, grabbing a wheelbarrow along the way, she headed for the house. She'd managed to get a wreath on the front door and the other day she'd bought a pine-scented candle. That was as far as she'd gotten with Christmas cheer.
When she walked through the front door she shivered and wanted to keep her jacket on. But it was soaked through. She hung it on the coatrack by the door and did a quick search for her brother.
Brandon was nowhere to be seen. She thought maybe he'd taken off with friends while she'd been out in the barn. He was hard to keep hold of these days. And he was less help now than he'd been as a little boy.
She needed some warm clothes. The sound of wood thumping into a wheelbarrow meant Gage was still outside. She hurried upstairs to her room and pulled a warm sweatshirt over her T-shirt. Her hair was still wet so she ran a towel over her head, then dried her face. As she walked down the stairs, she heard clanking and banging from the living room. Wood smoke filled the air and she smiled.
Gage Cooper squatted in front of her cantankerous old fireplace insert, rattling the vents and coughing as smoke filled the room. She hurried forward and twisted the right lever. The smoke started up the chimney again. He looked up at her.
"Sorry, I couldn't get it to work."
She shrugged off the apology. "It takes skill."
"I have skill."
"Of course you do." She glanced at the pile of wood on the hearth. "Thank you for bringing that in. I could make you a cup of coffee but I don't have a coffeemaker. I only drink tea."
"I'm good." He shoved in another log. The embers glowed brighter, sparked, and the fire came back to life. "There you go."
He pushed himself to his feet. Layla's hand went out to steady him, but she pulled back, unwilling to make contact. He smiled at her, as if he knew.
"I'll make tea." She walked away, leaving him to make the slow trail after her. "And then you should go."
She called back the last without looking at him.
He chuckled in response.