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Clove Penmire's heart pounded as she got off the bus in Lonely Hearts Station, Texas, suitcase in hand. For all her fascination with cowboys and the lure of the dusty state she'd read so much about, she had to admit smalltown Texas was nothing like her homeland of Australia.
A horse broke free from the barn across the street, walking itself nonchalantly between the two sides of the old-time town. A cowboy sprinted out of the barn and ran up the street after his horse, laughing as he caught up to it.
Clove smiled. From the back she couldn't tell if the man was handsome, but he was dressed in Wrangler jeans and a hat, and, as far as she could tell, the cowboy was the real thing.
That's what she had traveled to Texas for: the real thing. That sentiment would have sounded shallow, even to Clove, just a month ago. But having learned that her sister, Lucy, could not have a child, Clove's thought processes had taken a new course, one that included fantasies of tossing her brother-in-law into the Australian ocean.
All over the world there were people who couldn't conceive when they wished. They adopted, or pursued other means of happiness. She hadn't been overly worried, until Lucy confessed that she thought her husband might leave her for a woman who could bear children.
Lucy had laughed a little sadly and said that perhaps she was only imagining things. Clove had murmured something reassuring, but inside, fear struck her. Lucy loved her physician husband. He'd always seemed to adore her. Men didn't leave women because they couldn't bear children, did they? Robert was a wonderful man; Clove had been surprised, and distressed, at the turn of events.
So she'd taken drastic measures. She'd come to America for Archer Jefferson.
The cowboy hauled his horse around, leading it back toward the barn. Clove could hear him lightly remonstrating his wayward beast, but the horse didn't seem too concerned.
The cowboy caught her interested gaze, holding it for a second before he looked back at his horse. The man was extremely handsome. Breathtakingly so. Not the cowboy for her, considering her mission, and the fact that she was what people politely referred to as
the girl with the good personality.
The girl everybody loved like a sister.
The girl men liked to be friends with.
And the worst, the Nerdy Penmire.
She sighed. If Lucy had gotten all the beauty, their mother always said with a gentle smile, then Clove had gotten all the bravery. Which was likely how she'd ended up as a stuntwoman.
A stuntwoman with thick glasses.
Had she the face of other Australian exports like Nicole Kidman, for example, she might have been in front of the camera. But instead, she was a stunt double. Lucy said Clove had the life other people dreamed of.
Clove watched the cowboy brush his horse's back with his hand and fan a fly away from its spot-marked face. He was still talking to the animal; she could hear low murmuring that sounded very sexy to her ears, especially since she'd never heard a man murmur in a husky voice to her.
"Archer Jefferson!" someone yelled from inside the barn. "Get that cotton-pickin', apple-stealin', dog-faced Appaloosa in here!"
"Insult the man but not the sexy beast!" he yelled back.
Clove gasped. Archer Jefferson! The man she'd traveled several time zones to see! Her TexasArcher of two years' worth of email correspondence!
He was all cowboy, she realized, more cowboy than she'd come mentally prepared to corral. "Whoa," she murmured to herself.
Okay, a man that droolworthy must not lack for female friends. So why had he been writing her for two years? She wrinkled her nose, pushed her thick glasses back and studied him further. Tight jeans, dirty boots. Long, black, unkempt hair under the black felt hathe'd never mentioned long hair in their correspondence. Deep voice. Piercing eyes, she noted as he swung around, catching her still staring at him. She jumped, he laughed, and then tipped his hat to her as he swung up onto the "dog-faced" Appaloosa, riding it into the barn in a manner the stunt-woman in her appreciated.
Just how difficult would it be to entice that cowboy into her bed? Archer had put the thoughts in her mind about his virility, with his Texas-size bragging about his manliness and the babies popping out all over their Union Junction ranchaffectionately known as Malfunction Junction.
Seeing him, however, made her think that perhaps he hadn't been bragging as much as stating fact. Her heart beat faster. He had said he wasn't in the market for a relationship.
But a baby, just one baby
one stolen seed from a family tree that bore many
from a man she trusted more than a stranger from a sperm bank.
Maybe she wasn't brave.
She jumped as Archer strode across the street to where she stood.
"Are you lost?" he asked.
"No," she said, her gaze taking in every inch of him with nervous admiration. "Yes."
He grinned. "My name's Archer Jefferson."
She wished he wouldn't smile at her that way. Her heart simply melted, despite the cold chill of February. He made her dream of a blazing fireplace, soft blankets and naked him holding naked her tight.
"Can I help you?" he asked. "If you're looking for a job, the cafeteria is that way. If you're looking for a hair-do," he said, eyeing her braided hair momentarily, "I'd choose that salon over there. The Lonely Hearts Salon. Owner's a friend of mine. Salon owner across the street, of the Never Lonely Cut-n-Gurls, isn't."
She felt him studying her glasses, the cursed thick things that gave her clear vision when she was doing stunts. Contacts made her eyes itch and burn.
Lucy said Clove hid behind her glasses. Clove blinked, thinking that right now a curtain was the only thing she'd feel truly hidden behind.
"You sure are a quiet little thing," Archer said. "Don't be scared. We're all real friendly here."
Scared! She was a daredevil!
But if she told him that, in her lilting Aussie accent, he would know who she was right off. And he would think she was nuts for coming all the way to Texas without telling him. He would know it was no accident that she was standing outside the rodeo he had told her he was participating in.
"I'm not scared," she said, trying to disguise her accent. "Thank you for your concern."
"Ah, she speaks," Archer said. "I've got to run, but if you need anything, just grab someone off the street to help you. This is a friendly town, if you bypass the Cut-n-Gurls."
"I'll do that."
He tipped his hat, and with a flash of long-legged denim glory, he disappeared into the arena building.
Her breath slowly left the cage it was bound in.
No doubt his genes were as sexy as his jeans. He was far hotter than the thong-wearing models she'd last worked with.
Now she just had to get those jeans off of him.
He hadn't seemed particularly inclined to strip down to the "briefs or nothing" of which he'd boasted. Not even a flash of male attraction had lit his eye. "I don't know if I can do this," she murmured, suddenly doubtful about her mission.
He was terribly manly. And she had very little experience with men. Lucy had always been the one who warmed to hearth and home.
Clove took a deep breath. For Lucy's sake, she had to be brave.
She went into the walkway where Archer had disappeared. He was leaning against a rail, looking at his Appaloosa. Seeing her, he grinned. "Glad you came in. I was just thinking you might need a hotel."
Her throat gulped of its own accord. "Ah," she said, "I was wondering
"Yes?" he said, smiling down at her.
He was so tall. "Would you care to go to dinner with me?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
The friendly smile slipped from his face. His gaze touched her glasses. Then a forced veneer of friendliness came back to his expression. "I'm sorry. I can't."
She blinked, knowing her face was bright red.
"Okay. Thanks, anyway." Backing away, she saw sympathy in his gaze.
She turned and tried to walk away with as much dignity as possible. He was not remotely interested. How humiliating!
This was not going to be easy. In fact, it likely was impossible.
On the other hand, she was a stuntwoman known for her never-fail nerves. And she hadn't paid for a round-trip airline ticket to wind up going back home without a Texas-bred souvenir.
For Lucy's sake, she would bring out the daredevil residing inside her and let it loose all over that cowboy.
Archer Jefferson watched the little fraidy-cat walk away with some regret. My goodness, she was a shy one! Traveling by herself required some bravery, though.
If he had a ruleand usually he didn'tit was that most women were to be avoided. He'd learned from watching his brothers fall that women came in exciting, colorful packages; some fun to open, some not. But a shy woman didn't hold much threat to his well-being. And that one, with her oversize specs and timid little voice couldn't put fear into a flea.
Scratching his head, he thought about her dinner invitation. Much as he might have enjoyed showing a newcomer the town, he had to get his horse ready for the show. Honky-Tonk was a tricky Appaloosa. She thought she knew things she didn't, and they'd had more than one disagreement between them about who was boss.
"You're just a bit sassy," he said to Tonk.
"You think you're entitled to your own opinions. But we both know better, don't we?"
She pinned an ear back and gave him a sidelong stare.
"Females and opinions go together like butter and bread," he continued.
And it often seemed as if his Appaloosa had her fair share of womanly arts, conniving and one-upping being some of them. He knew quite well that females had a spectrum of tricks up their dainty sleeves. He'd watched seven brothers before him fall prey to the wedding-ring chase.
The last brother who'd fallen was Calhoun. He'd settled at the ranch, the first married brother to do so. Calhoun had brought his wife's familytwo children, Minnie and Kenny, and a grandfather, Barleywith him.
And Calhoun's success had generated some brotherly angst around the ranch. Calhoun had the kids, the father-in-law, the occasional roadshow participation as a rodeo clownfor which his wife, Olivia, adored himbut Calhoun had also became a hit with his paintings. Though he'd started out painting nudes, he had switched to family portraits and had a waiting list of people who wanted him to commit their children to canvas.
He was that good.
Unfortunately, Crockett, the family's first and best artist, had taken umbrage at this. Crockett felt Calhoun had one-upped him in the creative department. Archer frowned as he worked his way through the mud in Tonk's hoof. Usually, the brothers were happy for each other. But ever since the youngest brother, Last, had brought a new baby to the ranch, along with the baby's unmarried mother, Valentine, no one had been happy.
Or maybe the trouble had started when Mason left. Oldest brother, and patriarch of the Jefferson clan, he'd taken his wandering feet onto the road. He'd said he wanted to find out what had happened to their father, Maverick. But the brothers knew that was a lie; Mason had been nearly knocked to his knees when Mimi Cannady, their next-door neighbor, married another man and had a baby.
But that had been more than a year ago. Mimi and Brian were divorced now, a friendly divorce. And Mason had returned and was now very fond of one-year-old Nanette.
Archer sighed. Maybe all the craziness around Malfunction Junction was just the result of twelve brothers growing up together with no female touch to soften them.
Last was never going to settle down with Valentine, though he seemed to be receiving better marks for his daddy skills.
Mason was never going to get his head straight about Mimi. All the brothers except Mason knew Mimi was putting her ranch up for sale in order to move into town.
Bandera never shut up about poetry. He wrote it, he sang it, he reviewed it and recited it, and if he didn't shut his face, Archer was going to smother him in his sleep.
Crockett needed to just shut his yap and paint. There was room for two artists in the family tree.
"I'm the only brother who keeps my pipe shut," Archer told Tonk. "My insanity is on the down-low. I write a woman who is far away and who will never bother me. As far as I can see, I add no turbulence to this family ship. Why can't the rest of my brothers be more suave? Debonair?"
It sounded as if Tonk groaned. He gave her a tap on the fanny. "Hey," he said, "no comments from you. Or maybe I won't defend you the next time my brothers call you dog-faced." He frowned, looking at the pretty colors of his spotted equine. She was beautiful! What was it about her that they didn't get?
So Tonk was a little unusual. Archer liked unusual things.
She reached out with her back hoof, not really kicking at him but giving him a little goose. He stepped back, eyeing her warily. "Tonk," he said, his tone warning.
She flipped her mane at him.
"Excuse me," he heard.
Archer glanced up to see the little plain newcomer looking at him. "Yes?"
"I was just offered employment at the Never Lonely Cut-n-Gurls Salon."
"You were?" Straightening, he stared at her.
Marvella, the owner of the Never Lonely Cut-n-Gurls, was always on the lookout for fresh stylists, and Marvella's stylists were known far and wide to be babesand if they weren't babes, then they were possessed of supernatural talents. If you were a man, the Cut-n-Gurls could always help you out.
"Yes." She nodded. "But I knew you said they weren't your friends."
"They're not, that's true. What is it that you do?" he asked, staring at her speculatively. Maybe there was more to her than he'd first thought. Marvella had a pretty good eye for these things.
"II'm not doing anything right now," she said. "I'm on vacation."
"So, what did you tell her?" Archer felt worry assail him. Employment with Marvella included hassles, so many she'd soon dream of giving back her wages. "I told her, no, thank you. You said to avoid her."
"I think it would be best. Not that I'm always right."
She nodded. "Even your horse knows that."
Archer frowned. "What do you mean?"
She shrugged. "She doesn't like you."
He was outraged. "She likes me fine!"
She shook her head. "No, see how she distances herself from you? She thinks you're bossy. Trying to enforce yourself upon her."
His jaw dropped. "She's a horse. I'm supposed to enforce myself upon her."
"She doesn't like it. She's trying to tell you that you're annoying."
Well, that was it. He didn't have to listen to some half-baked claptrap like that. Tonk and he had a special relationship.
"How long have you had her?"
"Tonk and I have been together six months," Archer said defensively. "And Tonk thinks I'm"
"Bossy." She reached a hand over the stall, and Tonk slid her nose under the woman's fingers. "I understand, girl. Men can be very trying."
"Are you trying to do that horse-talking thing?" Archer asked. "I don't use horse psychology. I mean, I talk to Tonk, but I'm really just amusing myself. I don't believe we're actually communicating"
Her eyebrows raised. She stared at him, her gaze challenging. Disbelieving?
Something about that attitude caught Archer's attention. He looked at her more closely, finally seeing behind the specs.
"Those are beautiful eyes you're hiding."