Only Hers (Taggart/Falcon Series #2)by Francis Ray, Kensington Publishing Corporation Staff
St. Louis R.N. Shannon Johnson needs a break from her hectic job and her unsatisfying long-term romance. The parcel of Texas land she'd recently inherited is just the refuge she craves--until fellow landowner Matt Taggart challenges her to prove she has what it takes to work the sprawling ranch.
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By Francis Ray
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1996 Francis Ray
All rights reserved.
"This may be your last chance."
Shannon Johnson heard the ragged voice and barely recognized it as her own. She was closer to the edge than she wanted to admit. But at least she had a chance to keep from completely going over. She owed that to a man who understood her better than her family or James Harper, the man who wanted to marry her.
"Thanks, Wade," she whispered, her throat tight with unshed tears. She had cried enough.
Hands gripped at her sides, she looked out over the flower-strewn meadow, heard the rushing water of a stream edged by towering cypress two hundred feet away, then brought her gaze back to the weathered log cabin to her left.
Arthur Ferguson, Wade's lawyer, had told her the cabin was habitable. The old shack looked as if any strong wind would blow it down. She had heard Texas people were rugged, but she thought this was going a bit far.
Her prominent family in St. Louis would be horrified to think she contemplated, even for a moment, the idea of actually living in such a desolate place. But then, she had horrified her parents a lot.
Only one person in her family had always understood her and now he was gone.
Unclenching her hands with effort, Shannon turned to get a flashlight from the glove compartment of her car. She wanted to inspect the cabin. Gripping the flashlight, she refused to think it was too late to salvage her life and her career.
But she hadn't wanted to come. That, too, had been forced on her. Two Code Blues and the subsequent loss of both patients in the ICCU unit where she was head nurse had sent her to the nursing lounge in tears. A job she once defied her parents to train for, she now dreaded.
"Go home, Shannon."
Shannon flinched, her eyes snapping shut as she remembered the gentle but firm words of the nursing supervisor who had found her in the lounge fighting tears and an aching emptiness. The underlying reason for the directive — her increasing inability to function effectively since the death of her maternal grandfather from cancer three months previously — had sent her to Texas.
Shannon had seen death many times in her six years of nursing, but it had never taken someone so close to her. Although the specialists had given her grandfather only six months to live after his diagnosis, she had known doctors to be wrong and had desperately clung to that belief. She wasn't prepared for the loss or the overwhelming sense that she, as a medical professional, had failed him.
Care of critical patients only intensified her emotional upheaval. Yet, somehow she knew moving to a less stressful unit wouldn't help. Her grandfather's death had taken its toll. She had lost her professional objectivity. She took things too personally and was preoccupied with her own loss. She wasn't helping those entrusted to her by staying. They deserved and needed the full focus of their caregiver and she could no longer give it to them.
Losing Samuel J. Rhodes had left her floundering and unsure of herself. The worst part was not knowing if she was grieving for him or for herself. She had lost her champion, her confidant, her ally.
Shannon looked at the rough exterior of the cabin and shook her head. "You and I both have seen better days," she muttered.
Without further hesitation she walked to the cabin, opened the stubborn squeaking door, then let the flashlight pierce the dim interior. It was spartan and filthy. A broken, built-in mattressless bed sat on the far side of the room.
Ten feet away an ancient-looking potbellied black stove squatted near a wood-filled apple crate. The only other piece of furniture was an overturned, three-legged wooden chair. Spider webs gleamed in the light; a wasp flew past her. It would require a lot of hard cleaning to make the place livable.
Weariness settled in. Another hope turned to bitter regret. No matter how foolish Wade had sounded, she had prayed that the healing power of his meadow would help her, as he had predicted. She badly needed to feel life instead of the anger and misery she couldn't shake.
She had planned on staying in the cabin and getting her life together again. Now she realized that was no longer possible.
The adrenaline pushing her to make the twelve-hour drive from St. Louis had evaporated. Returning to the car, she opened the trunk and pulled out the quilt given to her by Granddaddy Rhodes. It was the first thing she had grabbed when she decided to come to Jackson Falls. The lovingly hand-stitched squares of cloth was her security blanket. It was always to her grandfather that Shannon had turned when she needed reassurance and guidance.
As the shy, youngest child with two brothers who were as assertive and as brilliant as their parents, she had turned to her grandfather a lot. He had never let her down. Now he was gone and she was lost.
Spreading the quilt beneath the shade of a sprawling oak tree, she laid down for the first time in over thirty-six hours. A trail of blue clouds sailed past under the guidance of the gentle April wind. Hands pillowed beneath her head, she closed her eyes. Immediately, sleep claimed her.
Matt Taggart couldn't believe a stranger was asleep in his meadow.
Years of checking the Circle T's range had revealed some odd things, but nothing like the scene before him. The ranch was clearly posted, and people in the area knew he didn't make exceptions.
Puzzled by the woman's daring, he let his horse's reins trail loosely between his fingers and leaned over the saddle horn to study his uninvited guest.
Daniel's film crew from Denver wasn't due for another two weeks, so it wasn't likely she was with them. Besides, the Cadillac convertible parked by the cabin had Missouri license plates.
A frown marched across Matt's dark-brown face as his gaze swept from the sports car to the woman with skin the color of toffee. Her long legs were shapely and elegant in khaki shorts. Her hips nicely rounded. From the way her breasts pushed against her thin yellow T-shirt, he suspected they would more than amply fill a man's palm.
His hand tightened on the reins. Brazos brought his sleek head up and stepped sideways. A light touch of a booted heel settled the quarter horse. The corners of Matt's mouth tilted in wry amusement at his quick response to the woman. Must be past time for him to head to Kerrville for some R&R.
Dismounting, he dropped the reins to the ground. Quiet, measured strides quickly carried him to the sleeping woman. Up close, he saw the dark smudges beneath her eyes that the crescent shadow of her lush lashes couldn't hide. He knew those signs. She must have been burning the candle at both ends. Before he quit the rodeo circuit a few years back, he had burned the ends and tried the middle once or twice.
She appeared defenseless, almost fragile, lying there with her bare lips slightly parted, her thick mane of reddish-brown hair swirling in the afternoon breeze.
Studying her from another angle, he tried to see if he recognized her. Her face was exquisite with its high cheekbones hinting at a Native American ancestor somewhere in the family background. Her bow-shaped mouth begged to be kissed. She had a nice nose and her chin had just enough thrust to make it interesting.
He was certain he had never seen this woman before. She wasn't the type a man easily forgot ... if at all.
Maybe she was the new waitress Moses had mentioned hiring for the Longhorn Restaurant and Bar. In the small ranch town of ten thousand, Moses Dalton owned one of the few businesses that kept growing and hiring.
If she was staying in town that meant she was off limits to him. He had made it a strict policy to steer clear of the local women. He wasn't the staying kind and he didn't want any problems when he moved on. As long as he kept it on the road, he didn't have to worry about causing bad feelings between him and his neighbors and friends or, worse yet, someone trying to push him to the altar.
Since this woman apparently felt enough at ease to fall asleep on his property, it seemed one of his hired hands didn't share Matt's philosophy on local women. Only three of the full-time men were single, but in today's society marriage didn't necessarily mean fidelity. It hadn't meant fidelity to Matt's ex-wife. Piercing anger no longer came with that knowledge, just an emptiness he didn't try to fill.
His questioning gaze again settled on the classic lines of the sleeping woman's face. He wondered which one of his men thought he had gotten lucky. Experience had taught him beautiful women weren't known for their staying power. For himself, he was too busy trying to make the ranch support itself to cater to a woman's whims no matter how tempting the outer wrapping.
"Hey, lady. Your date's not coming," Matt said. She didn't move, didn't blink. The tips of his fingers nudged the sole of her expensive-looking sandal. No reaction. "Lady, wake up!"
Shannon sat bolt upright at the masculine command. Heavy-lidded eyes widened as they traveled up the long, muscular jeans-clad legs of a powerfully built man. Large hands were braced on a narrow waist. A partially unbuttoned chambray shirt allowed a tempting peek at an impossibly broad chest.
She blinked. No man's chest could be that wide. No man could have a voice that rumbled like distant thunder nor possess velvety black eyes that made her skin tingle. Deciding she was imagining things, Shannon closed her eyes to lie back down on her quilt-covered bed of bluebonnets and buttercups.
"Oh no you don't, lady."
Strong, callused hands circled her upper arms and set her on her feet. The black eyes were even more devastating closer, just like the man. "You're real."
The tall, handsome man laughed, a husky sound that vibrated down her spine. "Too bad you won't be able to find out how real."
His sensual mouth quirked beneath his jet-black mustache. "A private joke."
"Oh?" Shannon said, somehow perfectly content to let him maintain his gentle hold on her arms. He had the most beautiful eyes. All dark and piercing.
"If you keep staring at me like that, I might forget you're off limits," he said, his thumb stroking her skin as his voice stroked her body.
"Off limits?" she repeated, clearly puzzled.
His face hardened. "Forgot the man you came to see already?"
Her confusion increasing with each second, she frowned. "I don't —"
"Save it, lady, I'm not interested. I know it's a long ways from town but Jay and Elliott are busy branding. Cleve has more sense and my other hands are married. So you wasted a trip and I don't like trespassers on my land."
Understanding slowly sank into Shannon's tired brain. "You must be Wade Taggart's nephew, Matt. I'm Shannon Johnson." Both her smile and her hand were ignored.
"Another what?" she asked.
"Another one of Wade's charity cases," Matt answered caustically.
Her chin went up. "I am not."
Heavy brows arched. "Lady, you mean to tell me you didn't come here expecting something from Wade?"
She flushed guiltily. "Yes, but if I could just expl —"
"Save it, lady," he interrupted sharply. "Wade died four months ago, and I have no intention of being duped the way he was by every pretty face with a sad story."
Hardcase. The nickname flashed into her mind. During Wade's hospitalization at Memorial Hospital in St. Louis he once told her that was the name some people called his nephew and partner. They didn't think he had any softness in him.
But Shannon had felt the gentleness of his touch, heard the warmth of his laughter. And certainly the nurses at Memorial wouldn't have been in such a continued frenzy to go out with the Walking Hunk, as they secretly called Matt, if he didn't possess some good qualities. His devastatingly handsome face and strong, lithe, perfect body would only take him so far.
"Mr. Tag —"
"You have two minutes to get off my land," Matt interrupted.
"If you would —"
"You're wasting time."
"You're the one wasting time," Shannon said in a rush. Perhaps she had overestimated the intelligence of the women at Memorial. "This is my land."
Surprise flashed across his dark features, then his face hardened into ruthlessness. "Whatever scam you're trying to run won't work on me."
"Mr. Taggart, if you'll just —"
"Lady, you either put your cute little behind back in your car under your own power or I'll do it for you."
Realizing Matt wasn't going to listen to anything she said, Shannon marched back to her car. So much for hoping they could be friends. She reached through the open window for her purse and withdrew a crumpled white envelope. "I think you better read this."
"Call me lady in that tone once again and I'll do something we'll both be sorry for." He didn't look the least bit intimidated. Shannon sighed. There probably weren't many things that bothered a man with shoulders as wide as a door. "Please just read the letter."
Taking the envelope, Matt scanned the bold, black letterhead of Ferguson & Ferguson. His body tautened. Blunt-tipped fingers removed the paper inside. Midway down the page a heated expletive singed the air. Razor-sharp eyes stabbed into her.
"You won't get away with this. I'll fight you through every court in the country."
"I hope not, Mr. Taggart. Wade wouldn't have wanted that."
"How in the hell do you know what Wade would have wanted?" he challenged.
Shannon debated only a few moments before she decided to face the issue head on. "I was his nurse when he was hospitalized in St. Louis almost four years ago. We became friends and kept in touch after he was discharged."
Matt's perusal moved with deliberate slowness from her windblown hair down to her toenails polished Racy Red, then lifted to linger for a heart-stopping moment on her breasts before continuing to her eyes. "I don't remember him mentioning you while he was there."
Shannon refused to let his bold stare intimidate her no matter how her heart rate sped up. "I worked the eleven-to-seven shift."
A sardonic smile twisted the sensual fullness of Matt's mouth. "I bet that's not all you did, honey."
"Lady" sounded like an endearment compared to the way Matt sneered "honey."
"Now you've insulted me and your uncle. Wade was a fine man and you have no reason to talk that way about either of us."
"Being 'fine' doesn't mean he couldn't be fooled by a woman."
"No doubt not a failing you share," Shannon countered.
He ignored her taunt. "Why did you wait so long? That letter was dated a week after Wade's death."
Shannon looked away from his disturbing gaze and tried to speak around the sudden lump forming in her throat. "P-personal business kept me away."
She faced him. "Why are you being so rude?"
Hands on his hips, he glared down at her. "You have the gall to ask me that when you sashay in here and try to take the best grazing section of the ranch? The only one with year-round water? The original homestead site?"
"I had no idea what the land looked like until today. Of course, Mr. Ferguson sent me information on the property, but I don't know anything about ranching. I simply followed his directions and turned off on the first road to the left after entering the gate." She tried to offer a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, I won't be in your way for long. Just act like I'm not here."
"Not likely, lady." He leaned down to within an inch of her face, blocking out everything except his dark look of fury. "This land has been in the Taggart family for four generations. I'll fight you through court and hell for what's mine."
She took a hasty step backward. "I already have this land, and if the lawyer's office hadn't been closed because it's Sunday the final papers would have already been signed."
Some of the tension left Matt's face and his shoulders. "Then this farce hasn't been finalized. If it had, though, you'd be landlocked."
Shannon jerked her letter from his hand. She could almost see the wheels turning in Matt's devilish mind. "Only until I tore down the fence bordering the Farm-to-Market Road."
Matt looked thunderstruck. "You do and you'll chase every horse and cow that gets out!"
A tear rolled down Shannon's smooth brown cheek. Everything was going wrong. She hated arguing, she hated crying just as much. Tears implied a lack of control that, until the loss of her grandfather, she had prided herself on maintaining no matter what.
Excerpted from Only Hers by Francis Ray. Copyright © 1996 Francis Ray. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Francis Ray is the New York Times bestselling author of the Grayson novels, the Falcon books, the Taggart Brothers, and Twice the Tempation, among many other romances. Her novel Incognito was made into a movie aired on BET. A native Texan, she is a graduate of Texas Woman's University and has a degree in nursing. Besides a writer, she is a school nurse practitioner with the Dallas Independent School District. She lives in Dallas.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Great read, had trouble putting the novel down for a minute. I was frustrated with Matt at times, but could understand his hurt and fear. However, it all worked out in the end. It's amazing what a little competition and jealousy can bring insight to a difficult situation. Great writing as usual. Love the historic emphasis. LA-TXN
Love and trust may not necessarily always go hand in hand. Its sometimes easier to Love than trust!
Only Hers Shannon is a nurse that needs some downtime so for a few weeks she travels to one of her patients cabins in the woods but she's met with the landowner. Matt brings her to the ranch house where the housekeeper, Octavia makes her feel welcome. She has a letter that says she can stay for a few weeks time. The patient has since died now and the turmoil over the land is in upheaval. They have to work it out for themselves so she starts to learn how the horse ranch works by doing the chores involved.
I really enjoy Matts trying resist the nurse , made me fall in love with him.
Totally agree with charmed 47! I really dislike when the entire book is dealing with the fallout from a previous relationship and things do not work out until the last few pages of the book.