HOW LUCKY CAN YOU GET?
Rust Creek Ramblings
You heard it here first: Good ol' boy Brad Crawford left that raucous Fourth of July card game with legal possession of Boyd Sullivan's Leap of Faith Ranch. Never mind that Brad took advantage of an old man under the influence. The handsome and cocky Crawford has always had a "me first" philosophy.
Now we've learned that Boyd's long-absent daughter Margot Sullivan has returned to Rust Creek Falls and is living with Brad at the Leap of Faith! It seems unthinkable that the strong-willed, sassy rodeo rider would allow Brad to take advantage of her. So just what is going on behind those weathered fences? Place your bets, savvy readers. Could the right woman finally have reformed Brad the cad?
About the Author
Since selling her first story to Harlequin Books in 1999, Cindy has been forced to juggle her love of reading with her passion for creating stories of her own. But it's worth it. Writing for Harlequin Special Edition is a dream come true.
Read an Excerpt
It was nearly 3:00 a.m. when Margot Sullivan stepped out of the brisk October wind and into the darkened foyer of her family home. She sniffed appreciatively. The ranch house where she'd grown up smelled different, cleaner than her last visit six months earlier. Though battling dust was a constant challenge in rural Montana, her mother had always worked hard to have a clean house. After her death, everything had been let go.
It appeared her father was once again taking pride in the home.
Pausing on the rug covering the weathered hardwood, Margot bent to take off her boots. She froze when Vivian, her blue heeler, snarled. The growl grew louder and Vivian crouched into a fighting stance, the fur on the back of her neck standing straight up.
Following the dog's gaze to the stairway leading to the second floor, Margot gasped.
A bare-chested man wearing only jeans stood on the steps, a baseball bat in his hands. Tall with a thatch of brown hair and a dark stubble of beard on his cheeks, his hair was mussed as if he'd just run his hands through it. The eyes riveted on her were sharp and assessing.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded, but his expression was more puzzled than menacing.
"I'll ask the questions." Margot rested a trembling hand on Vivian's head. "Where's my father?"
Without answering, the man lowered the bat and started down the stairs toward her.
"Not one more step," she ordered. "Or I'll give my dog the command to attack."
He paused, cocked his head, grinned.
That's when she recognized him. Brad Crawford, of the illustrious Crawford family. What the heck was a Crawford doing skulking around her father's house half-dressed in the middle of the night?
"Little Margot Sullivan." He shook his head and flashed a smile that had been winning him hearts since he'd been old enough to walk.
Despite herself, Margot relaxed slightly. Given the choice, she'd take Brad with a bat over a stranger in the same pose. Though she still had no clue what he was doing in her house.
"Didn't expect to see you here," he added.
"This is my house."
"Well, now." He rubbed his chin. "That's debatable."
"Where's my father?" Margot's heart froze as she imagined all the things that could have happened to a man pushing eighty. Without waiting for an answer, she called out. "Dad! It's Margot. Where are you?"
"Save your breath." Barely giving a second glance to Vivian who'd continued to growl low in her throat, Brad meandered into the living room and plopped down into an overstuffed chair. "Boyd isn't here."
Vivian's eyes remained trained on Brad.
"Friend," Margot said reluctantly, then repeated.
Friend might be carrying it a bit far but the Crawfords were well-known in Rust Creek Falls, Montana. Although Brad was a good ten years older than herand had quite the reputation as a ladies' manthere was no denying his family was respected in the community.
While he wasn't exactly her friend, Brad wasn't a dangerous enemy, either.
With Vivian glued to her side, Margot moved to the sofa and took a seat. Questions over her father's whereabouts fought with an unexpected spike of lust at the sight of Brad's muscular chest. She'd already noticed he hadn't quite secured the button on his jeans. Just like she noticed he smelled terrific: a scent of soap and shampoo and that male scent that was incredibly sexy.
Trying to forget the fact she'd driven ten hours today with the windows down and that her red hair was a messy tumble of curls, Margot leaned forward, concern for her father front and center. She rested her arms on her thighs and fixed her gaze on Brad. "Tell me where my father is."
"I don't know."
A cold chill enveloped her in a too-tight hug. "What do you mean you don't know?"
"He left town right after the Fourth of July," Brad said in a conversational tone. "Hasn't come back."
It was now October. Three months. Her elderly father had left the family ranch not long after that last argument between them. A horrible conversation that had ended with him hanging up on her after telling her to not come back or call again.
"Everyone knows he has a daughter, yet no one in this town thought to let me know he'd up and taken off for parts unknown?" Fear sluiced through Margot's veins and panic had her voice rising with each word.
"The sheriff confirmed he left by train with a ticket to New York City."
"Wow. That makes me feel so much better." Sarcasm ran through her voice like thick molasses. Then the anger punched. "Did anyone even try to get a hold of me?"
"Initially everyone thought Boyd had gone to see his sister, who"
"Who lived in New Jersey, not New York City. My aunt Verna has been gone almost two years. She died six months before my mother passed away."
"That fact wasn't known until later." Brad waved a dismissive hand. "You know your dad. He wasn't the kind of guy to share personal stuff."
Margot clasped her hands together. "That still doesn't explain why no one called me."
"After the sheriff discovered his sister was no longer living, he attempted to contact you. He discovered you'd been injured and were no longer competing. No one knew where to find you."
After sustaining a serious skull fracture shortly after that last conversation with her father, Margot had left the rodeo circuit to stay with a friend in Cheyenne. But when a week or two of recuperation stretched into several months, Margot decided to return to the only home she'd ever known. "My father has my cell number."
"One problem," Brad said. "He wasn't around to give it to us. And it's not like you've kept in touch with anyone else in town."
Where would her father have gone? None of this made any sense. Margot wasn't certain if it truly didn't compute or if her head just wasn't processing the information correctly. Boyd Sullivan was a smart man who, despite his age, knew how to handle himself. When he was sober, that is.
"Was he still drinking before he left?"
"He was," Brad said quietly.
Margot sat back abruptly. The head she'd injured ten weeks earlier began to ache. The strain of travel from Wyoming to Montana had taken its toll, but it was the tension of the past few minutes that now had her head clamped in a vise.
She rubbed the back of her neck with one hand, trying to ease the pressure. With every syllable Brad uttered, the story worsened.
"What are you doing here?" she asked bluntly.
"I live here."
"You're watching the place while my father is away?" she asked cautiously, her admiration for him inching up a notch.
Unlike in many large cities where people could live side-by-side for years and not really know each other, in Rust Creek Falls neighbors took care of neighbors.
Not to say there weren't feuds. The bad blood between the Crawfords and the Traubs over the years was a prime example.
But on the whole, you couldn't have asked for a better place to grow up, or in her father's case, to grow old.
Brad shifted uncomfortably in the chair. "That's not exactly the case."
Margot frowned. "If you're not watching it for him, what are you doing here?"
"Well, you see, your father put up the deed to the ranch in a poker game." A sheepish grin crossed his handsome face. "He lost. I won. The Leap of Faith is now mine."
* * *
Brad left the pretty redhead fuming in the downstairs parlor as he headed upstairs for his shirt and shoes. He was concerned about her father, tooif he wasn't he wouldn't have used some of his own money to hire a PI to search for the old man. But right now he had Boyd's daughter on the brain.
Sitting across from Margot Sullivan with that white shirt gaping open and those green eyes flashing fire had been a huge turn-on. Especially when he'd told her she could stay the night. It had been like tossing kerosene onto a burning fire.
The hellcat had been so angry she'd sputtered and stammered, her breasts heaving in a most delectable way as she informed him that this was her house and if anyone was leaving, it was him.
Damn. There was nothing that excited Brad more than a woman with spunk.
That fact was firmly evident in the sudden tightness of his jeans. He grinned, more than a little relieved.
Though he'd dated his share of women since his divorce four years earlier, in the past six months there hadn't been a single female who'd caused his mast to rise.
Not that his seeming lack of libido worried him. Not in the least.
Brad had been more puzzled than anything by the occurrence or rather the non-occurrence.
Tonight had illustrated he'd been foolish to give the matter a second thought. Obviously it had just been that none of the women he'd taken out recently tripped his trigger.
Odd, as the saucy redhead had only to step through the front door to capture his interest.
Brad jerked on a flannel shirt, buttoned it but deliberately left the tail hanging out. Even being on a different floor in a far-removed room hadn't, ah, cooled his interest. Still, there was no need to advertise the fact.
Of course, he reminded himself as he pulled on his boots, that interest between a man and a woman needed to be a two-way street. The fact that, in her eyes, he'doh, what was the phrase she'd used"stolen a grieving old man's ranch" almost certainly ensured she wasn't likely to get naked with him.
At least not tonight.
He clambered back down the rickety steps and felt one bend beneath his weight. After making a mental note to fix it before it collapsed, Brad traversed the last few steps, then crossed to the parlor.
Margot stood at the darkened fireplace, her gaze riveted to one of the photographs on the mantel: a family picture of her parents and a skinny girl with rusty hair and freckles. But that gawky little girl had grown into a real beauty. Worn Levis hugged her slender legs like a glove and a mass of red-gold hair tumbled down her back like a colorful waterfall.
His body stirred in appreciation of such a fine female figure. Brad tried to recall how old she'd be by now.
Twenty-two? Twenty-three? Definitely old enough.
All he knew for certain was that the spitfire who at age six had once tossed a bucketful of rancid water on him when he'd mentioned her freckles had grown into a lovely young woman.
A flash of teeth from the dog standing beside her brought a smile to his lips. It wasn't only the white-and-black coat tinged with silver or those large ears that alerted Brad to the breed. The protective stance was pure heeler.
Rather than resenting the animal, Brad found himself grateful Margot had such a companion. A woman traveling alone could be a target for the unscrupulous. But first they'd have to get throughwhat had she called the animal. Viper?
The name didn't sound exactly right, but it certainly fit.
Viper emitted a low growl as Brad entered the room.
Margot didn't growl like her dog, but when she turned her face was composed and icy.
"I'm calling Gage Christensen first thing in the morning," she said, referring to the sheriff of Rust Creek Falls. "You and I and the sheriff will hash out this matter tomorrow."
"Anyone ever tell you you're pretty cute when you're angry?" Ignoring the dog's warning growl, Brad stepped closer. "You growed up real fine, Margot Sullivan."
Though Brad was a recipient of a solid education from the University of Montana, most of his days before and since graduation were spent with ranch hands who delighted in slaughtering the English language. When necessary, he could play the good-ole-boy card with the best of 'em.
He shoved his hands into his pockets, rocked back on his heels and let his admiring gaze linger.
Instead of blushing or simply accepting the compliment as her due, she glared at him.
"You think you're pretty hot stuff."
Brad waited, inclined his head, not sure of the point she was trying to make.
"While you may have a face that doesn't send children screaming away in the night" she paused, whether for effect or to gain control of the emotions that had brought the two bright swaths of color to her cheeks, he couldn't tell "you don't impress me. You showed your true character when you stole this ranch from my fath"
"Hey, I won it fair and square," Brad protested. Craw-fords might be many thingsjust ask a Traub if you wanted a laundry list of sinsbut they didn't cheat. Not at cards, or anything else, for that matter. Not even to protect an old coot from himself.
It was obvious Margot wasn't in the mood to listen to him, so it hardly seemed the time to divulge that he planned to sign the ranch back over to her father when he returned.
Once he played that card, she'd kick him out immediately. And Brad was much too entranced to go.
The man had showed her to her own room!
Margot held on to her temper when he insisted on carrying her battered suitcases up the stairs. They'd tussled briefly until Vivian became so distraught Margot feared the stress would push the dog into early labor. Gritting her teeth, she'd acquiesced, but not before letting go so abruptly the move had sent Brad stumbling backward.
He deposited the suitcases next to her bed then just stood there like a bellman expecting a tip.
"Thank you," she murmured when he made no move to go. She told herself she should be grateful he hadn't chosen her bedroom to make his own.
Instead, on the way down the hall, he'd motioned to the room across from hersthe guest roomas being his.
She was relievedand a bit puzzledhe'd left her parents' room undisturbed. The master bedroom was by far the largest of the four. Still, having him stay in the guest room was appropriate. He was a guest, albeit an uninvited and unwanted one. His story about winning the ranch in a poker game only managed to anger her further.
Once Gage came out tomorrow and they got this whole mess straightened out, the "guest" would be gone.
For now, Margot wanted nothing more than to shower off road grime and collapse into bed.
"If there's anything you need" he began.
"If there's anything I need," Margot said pointedly. "I think I know where to find it. I did, after all, grow up in this house."
At the sudden intense emotion filling her voice, Vivian stiffened beside her.
"Are you always cranky when you're tired?" Brad asked with an innocent air that neither of them bought.
"Bite me," Margot snapped, her head now throbbing in earnest.
He murmured something under his breath, but she missed it. She sank down at the end of the bed covered by a quilt her mother had made for her sixteenth birthday and placed her head in her hands.
The blows just kept coming.
First the injury when a horse she'd been mounting had spooked and she'd been pushed back, slamming her head against a trailer. Her head had hit just right or, as the doctor said, just wrong. The skull fracture she'd sustained had been serious enough for the neurologist to warn that another concussion before she was fully healed could leave her with permanent impairment.
All that paled in comparison to worry over her father's whereabouts. He could be sick. He could be injured. He could be dead.
Margot buried her face in her hands.
"Are you okay?"
The concern in his voice sounded genuine but thankfully Brad didn't move any closer.
She knew she was in bad shape when she only exhaled a breath and nodded. "We'll get this settled in the morning."
That was his cue to leave. But he remained where he was. When she finally gathered the strength to lift her head, she found him staring at her with the oddest expression on his face.
"If you need anything, anything at all." His hazelor were they green?eyes held a hint of worry. "I'm just across the hall."
What should she say to that? Thank you for taking over my home? Thank you for stealing the ranch from a drunken old man?
Yet he was obviously trying to be nice so she cut him a break. "Okay."
Then he was gone, taking his handsome face, impudent smile and the intoxicating scent of soap, shampoo and testosterone with him.
She stretched out on the bed and let her muscles relax. Eyes closed, she offered up a prayer for her father's safety and well-being.
It was the last rational thought Margot had that evening.