Down on her luck, Mary Beth Parker is back in her hometown of Naconiche, East Texas, to claim her inheritancea rundown restaurant and motel. The whole town pitches in to help her with this fixer upper, including J. J. Outlaw, the sheriff. But Mary Beth doesn't want his kind of help.
Who cares that J.J. thinks the world of her four-year-old daughter, Katy? Who cares that he still feels the same way about Mary Beth? Who cares that he's spending a lot of time at her place, wearing a tool belt and swinging a hammer? Shouldn't falling for your high school sweetheart be against the law?
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By Jan Hudson
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen the Greyhound bus pulled to a stop at Wally's Feed Store, a ton of memories flooded Mary Beth Parker. This was the first time she'd been back to Naconiche, Texas, in twelve years - a lifetime ago, or so it seemed.
"Wake up, Katy," she whispered to her daughter, kissing the little blond head that nestled against her.
Katy stretched and yawned, moving slowly, tired after the long trip from Natchez. Mary Beth had hated to put the four-year-old through the exhausting bus trip, but there simply wasn't enough cash to buy plane tickets - even if there had been an airport nearby. They had endured some rough times in the past two years, but their luck had finally changed. Just when she was starting to feel most desperate, Mary Beth had received word of an inheritance. A distant relative on her father's side had died and left everything to her - not a huge estate, the attorney had cautioned, but anything at all would be welcome to Mary Beth. She and Katy had been living off the kindness of friends.
Mary Beth struggled to her feet and got her crutches and her carry-on from the overhead bin. The blasted cast on her foot made moving in the cramped space awkward, and her leg ached from the long ride.
"Don't forget Penelope and your toy bag," she told Katy. Penelope, a worn, flop-eared stuffed dog, went everywhere with her daughter, including to bed at night.
Several passengers called goodbye as they moved down the aisle. With her bubbly personality, Katy had become the mascot of the group and had told anybody who would listen, "We're going to find our fortune in the town where my mommy was queen." Katy was quite precocious, but she hadn't learned the finer points of discretion yet.
The driver helped them off and unloaded their bags from the belly of the bus. "Good luck to you, ma'am. And to you, too, Katy."
"Thanks, Mr. Emmett." Katy waved merrily and turned to face the old courthouse across the street.
"Where's the square, Mommy? The one where you rode when you were queen."
"That's it, sugarplum. See, the courthouse is in the middle and the streets make a square around it."
As the bus drove away, a tan sheriff's car pulled up. The door opened and a tall man in a black cowboy hat climbed out. Mary Beth thought his slow, deliberate movements seemed familiar. Broad-shouldered and ruggedly handsome, he walked as if he owned the place. When he started toward her, a big grin spread across his face.
Her heart almost stopped. It was the grin that she recognized - that Outlaw grin. The years had been kind to him; they had etched his face with character, changing him from a boy to a man.
Automatically her hand started to her hair, then she forced it back down. She looked as if she'd been pulled through a knothole backward and she knew it. She'd hoped to have time to prepare herself before running into him. Actually, she was hoping that he had moved to Houston or Topeka - somewhere far away so that she wouldn't have to face him in her humiliation. But there he stood, sexy as all get-out, and her looking like a frump in rumpled clothes with sleep in her eyes. There was nothing to do but keep her chin up and play it cool.
"Mary Beth Beams? Darlin', is that you?"
"J.J.?" she asked, as if she didn't know.
"In the flesh," he said, taking her into his arms in a bear hug.
The crutches made hugging him difficult, but she gave it her best shot. It felt so good to be in a strong, masculine embrace - so darned good. The years seemed to roll away. She was a girl again, secure in familiar arms.
"You look great," he said, "but what in the world happened to your foot?"
"I broke it. A really stupid accident."
She felt a tug on her jacket and looked down.
"Who's he?" Katy asked in a loud whisper.
Mary Beth stepped away, grateful that her daughter had pulled her back to reality. J.J. seemed happy to see her, but she was sure the man hadn't spent all this time pining for her. In fact, an old pain slashed through her as she recalled he hadn't even pined for her a full day when she'd broken up with him all those years ago. But those days were long past. He probably had a wife and four kids by now. "This is J. J. Outlaw, an old friend of mine. J.J., this is my daughter, Katy."
He grinned down at Katy, who was looking him over quite thoroughly, and tipped his hat. "Delighted to meet you, Miss Katy. Welcome to Naconiche."
Katy frowned, inched closer to Mary Beth and said, "Are you a real outlaw? Outlaws are bad guys."
J.J. chuckled. "My last name is Outlaw, but I'm one of the good guys. I'm the county sheriff."
"Is that why you have a gun?"
He nodded gravely. "For emergencies. In case I meet up with any real bad guys."
"Do you put people in the pokey? My daddy -"
Horrified at what her daughter was about to blurt out, Mary Beth clamped her hand over Katy's mouth.
"You're the sheriff now? I thought your father would be sheriff forever."
J.J. laughed. "I was beginning to think that, too, but he retired last year, and I ran for his job and won the election."
"It's great to see you again," Mary Beth said, trying her best to act casual. Seeing J.J. again aroused a legion of conflicting feelings inside her, and her emotions were already stretched dangerously thin after a grueling seventeen-hour bus trip. He'd once been the love of her life.... She couldn't deal with him right now, she thought, looking around. "Mr. Murdock was supposed to meet us, but I don't see him. Where is his office?"
"On the other side of the square." J.J. motioned across the way. "But he's in court right now, and no telling when he'll be done. He asked me to meet you and get you settled."
Her heart hit the pavement. Since it seemed that there was no escaping him, she pushed all her memories and muddled emotions behind a thick door and locked it. Lifting her chin and giving him a perky smile, she said, "Why, isn't that sweet of you, J.J."
"No problem. Will you be staying at Ouida's Bed-and-Breakfast?"
Surprised by his question, Mary Beth said, "I - I don't know where we'll be staying. I had assumed that we could stay at the motel, but I suppose it might be full."
"Yes, The Twilight Inn. I inherited it, you know. The motel and the restaurant next door. Marjorie Bartlett owned it, but she died a few months ago and left it to me. Well, she actually didn't leave it to me ... or to anybody. She had Alzheimer's and had been in a nursing home for years, but she was my father's cousin and I'm the only relative left on his side of the family. On either side, really. Since my folks died, I'm it, except for some of my mom's cousins in Bremerton, Washington, and I've never met any of them. Truthfully, I barely remembered Cousin Marjorie, but I'm extremely thankful to have inherited her property." She laughed. "Sorry, I'm babbling, but I'm very tired. I'm eager to get settled at the motel and soak in a warm bath."
Excerpted from The Sheriff by Jan Hudson Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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