Karen Rose Smith

Harlequin Special Edition

Montana Mavericks: The Texans Are Coming!

September 2011

ISBN: 978-0-373-65619-6


Chapter One

 Jeannette Williams hurriedly pushed the vacuum cleaner into the closet and closed the door, then nervously tightened the band on her ponytail.  She was frazzled.  More frazzled than when she had to run after her four-and-a-half year old son.  If she didn't finish her duties at this mountain-top log home by four o'clock, she could get fired.

In the kitchen she seemed to be all thumbs as she poured expensive ground coffee into a canister.  Suddenly her fingers slipped on the glossy bag and the grounds spilled over the counter and onto the floor.

Jeannette was used to rolling with the punches and picking up the pieces.  She'd had to do that after her fiancé died before Jonah was born.  But today, knowing she still had an evening's worth of work in a restaurant she didn't like, she almost felt defeated.  Still, defeat wasn't in her vocabulary. Jonah was her focus. 

She hurried to the closet, found a dustpan and brush and fell to her knees in the kitchen, cleaning up the ceramic-tiled floor.

When she heard a noise outside, she glanced up at the kitchen door the moment that it opened.  A tall man with a black Stetson stood in the doorway, looking as startled to see her as she was to see him.  His jaw was covered with what looked like a week's worth of beard stubble.  His cheeks were gaunt.  His chambray shirt was tucked into blue jeans, but the sleeves were rolled up, revealing strong forearms.  His brown boots were dusty.  For an eternal moment she gazed into his green eyes.  He looked so...sad.  A second later she thought she must be mistaken because they were snapping with impatience and annoyance.

Her words came out in a rush.  "I'm sorry I'm still here. I'll be gone in a few minutes.  I was a little late getting here and I was just ready to leave when the coffee spilled—"

"Just leave," he said gruffly.

"Really," she insisted, "I'll just be a few minutes."

"Go on," he commanded.  "I'll do it myself."

She knew from her instructions that he valued his privacy, that he was a solitary man who didn't want to be disturbed.  Tears came to her eyes as she blinked fast to keep them from falling.  Wouldn't that just be altogether humiliating?  She didn't even cry at the lewd comments some of the customers made at LipSmackin' Ribs.  But this man's sadness, demeanor and penetrating gaze shook her.  Still...although he was obviously angry with her, there was something in his bearing, something underlying the gruffness in his voice, something in those green eyes that...appealed to her.  She was going crazy, she knew she was.  A tear did slip from her eye and rolled down her cheek.

Her mountain man, obviously seeing her distress, blew out a breath, closed the door and came over to where she knelt.  He was over six feet, so broad-shouldered, so...virile.

A little tremor ran through her and she wasn't exactly sure where it came from.  He was studying her as if he was trying to figure something out. 

Then he crouched down beside her.  "I'll help you clean up the mess."

That she hadn't expected.  But as she'd learned long ago, both the good things and the troubling things in life were usually unexpected.  For a few moments, silence trembled between them as she used the brush, and he slid one very large hand with long, tapered fingers across the rust-colored tile, pushing coffee grounds into the dustpan.

She had to make another stab at saving her job.  "I need this job.  I have a son.  I'll buy more coffee."  In her effort to explain again, she peeked at his profile.  It seemed a tad familiar, though it really couldn't be—

His hand brushed hers.  She felt the tingle of contact to the tip of her ponytail. 

Suddenly she was looking into those green eyes once more and falling...falling...falling.  "Sorry," she murmured again, feeling like a total idiot.  When was the last time she'd been this clumsy?  This scattered?  This...attracted to a man?

She shook her head as if to clear it, remembering Ed and the accident and all her fiancé had tried to do for them.  Maybe trying to juggle two jobs was affecting her the same way it had affected him.

"I didn't pick up the tip you left."  She swallowed hard. "I won't take it.  If you have extra things you'd like me to do next time, just leave a list."  She knew she sounded frantic and breathless, but she was.  She wished he'd say something.  Before she thought better of it, she clasped his forearm.  "I really need this job."

His skin was tanned and hot and taut.  And she could feel the brown hairs under her fingertips.  Heavens, she was losing it!

She released his arm and just as she thought he was never going to speak to her, he finally said, "It's okay.  Accidents happen.  I should have checked the drive for your car when I got back from hiking, but you've always cleared out before I returned."

That's the way he wanted it.  She could tell.

"This won't happen again," she promised.

With most of the coffee in the dustpan now, he took the brush and pan from her hands and stood with it.  He strode to the closet, opened it and poured the coffee into the trash can inside. 

Then he dusted off his hands and turned to face her.  "We'll forget all this happened.  It'll be our secret—under one condition."

Jeannette rose to her feet and had to tilt her chin up to meet his eyes.  His one condition made her wary.  Just what did he expect in return?  As hunky as he was, she was not about to—

A half smile tilted the man's lips, as if he could read her mind.  "Just don't tell anyone you saw me here."

Relief flooded Jeannette.  Yet maybe there was just a little disappointment mixed in.  In that moment he'd mentioned a condition, she'd imagined his strong arms around her!  But checking his expression again, she could see he was serious.

"I won't tell anyone," she vowed.

Tilting his head, he held out a hand to her to seal the deal.  She took it and was immediately affected by her proximity to him, the fall-air, man-smell of him, the skin contact that had already shaken her before.  His grip was firm, though the press of his fingers was gentle.  Her breath caught. Her heart raced.  For propriety's sake, she pulled away. 

Altogether flustered now, she gestured to the floor.  "Are you sure you don't want me to wash it up?"

"I'm sure."
     Although for a few minutes she'd felt a connection to him, now he wanted her gone.  She could do "gone" if it meant holding on to her job.  Quickly she snatched her keys and purse from the counter. 

But the tall, well-built man's voice stopped her.  "What's your name?"

"Jeannette.  Jeannette Williams."

"You forgot something, Jeannette."  He handed her the bill that had been tucked under the coffee canister.

"I don't deserve it."
     "Sure, you do.  A little spilled coffee doesn't wipe out all your cleaning sessions and grocery-buying that have made my life easier."

She thought of Jonah and the apartment they'd moved into a few months ago.  She thought of the bills stacked on her table, and she took the money from this enigmatic man's hand.

Then she fled his house, wondering if he ever used the silver SUV in his garage...wondering how he could stay on that mountain alone.

She considered her son again, and her job at LipSmackin' Ribs.  She'd do whatever she had to do for Jonah, no matter how hard it was.

As she drove down the deserted, bumpy, unpaved road hoping she didn't get a flat tire, she remembered her mountain man's fleeting smile.  Her heart beat faster all over again.


     After Jeannette Williams left, Zane Gunther felt as if he'd just stepped into a whirlwind.  Not only had she unsettled him and maybe blown his cover, but he was aroused! 

     Swiping off his Stetson, he plopped it on the hat rack on the wall in the well-equipped country kitchen and ran his hand down over his face.  He knew he was a changed man after what had happened in April.  He couldn't write music any more, let alone sing.

     He went into the living room and stared up at the loft—the loft where his guitar was propped against a desk.  He didn't even know why he'd brought it here.

     How could he write songs when a thirteen-year-old had died after one of his concerts?  How could he write songs when the tabloids and even the legitimate press were painting him as a celebrity who didn't care about ordinary people?  When even his mother was being affected by the publicity?  When everything around him seemed to be in a shambles?

     There was a rap at his front door and he swiveled toward it, wondering if his cleaning lady had forgotten something.  She'd been pretty.  That silky blond hair, those cornflower blue eyes and a figure right out of a man's fantasies.  Certainly she'd known who he was, hadn't she?  Would she keep her promise?

     He went to the living room and opened the door, not knowing whether to be disappointed or relieved when he stood aside to let his guest in.  Up until today, Dillon Traub had been his only visitor.

     "Who was that leaving?" Dillon asked, going straight to the kitchen and setting containers of Chinese food on the table.

     "You passed her?"

     "Her?" Dillon asked with a raised brow.

     "She was my cleaning lady.  When I came back from my hike, she was still here."


     "Yeah, well, we sort of made a deal.  She said she won't tell anyone."

     "And what are you giving her in return?"  Dillon's voice was wary. 

     Dillon had moved to Thunder Canyon last year and was now happily married with an almost three-year-old daughter.  He and Zane went way back to grade school in Midland, Texas.  They knew each other well, well enough that they didn't sugarcoat the truth.

     "She was cleaning up a mess in my kitchen when I walked in, and she was afraid she'd lose her job.  So I told her I wouldn't say anything to the cleaning service about the mess and her being late if she kept my secret.  I think she's the type who might."

     "How long did you talk to her?"

     "About ten minutes, and we really didn't do much talking.  Mostly just cleaned up coffee."

     Dillon started opening the cardboard containers, but appeared even more suspicious than before.  "So, what?  You got a vibe off of her or something?  How old is she?"

     "I'm not great with age, but I'd say probably late twenties.  And yes, I did get a vibe."

     Dillon met Zane's gaze and his lips quirked up.  "Well!"

     "Well, what?" Zane growled.

     "Well, maybe you're coming back to life.  Maybe you're seeing you can't live on this mountaintop forever.  You've been here four months, Zane.  You see no one but me and Erika.  You don't even have a phone here so you can talk to your mom and your lawyer or your manager or band without going through me.  By the way, your mom said you don't call enough."

     Zane rolled his eyes to heaven.  "You know I have my cell phone and I get a signal when I drive down the mountain.  I call mom once a week to check in.  Are you getting tired of taking messages?"

     Opening a drawer, Dillon found a serving spoon and stuffed it into what looked like chicken lo mein.  "No.  That's not it, and you know it.  Erika and I understand why you need time and silence.  Why you have to live in secret because the paparazzi are chasing you.  We get it.  But at some point, you're going to have to jump back into the world and deal with all of it."

     Zane glanced up at the loft again.  "Not now."  However, he was thinking, Maybe not ever.

     Grabbing forks from another drawer, Dillon faced his friend.  "So what color were her eyes?"


     Jeannette emerged from Mop and Broom Cleaning Services office the following morning, Jonah's little hand in hers.  She stared almost uncomprehendingly at the traffic cruising up and down Oak Avenue.  She'd just been fired!  They'd given her a lame excuse, but she knew the truth.

     Her son tugged on her hand as she focused on him.  His brown hair always looked mussed, but his blue eyes, the same shade as hers, sparkled with a child's innocence and curiosity. "Are we gonna go to my open house now?"

     Jeannette had worked out her schedule today so she could take Jonah to his preschool open house this morning, drop him off at Edna and Mel Lambert's—Ed's parents insisted they didn't mind babysitting while she worked—and arrive at LipSmackin' Ribs for Friday's eleven-to-four shift.  She had to rotate with the other waitresses for those premium weekend night shifts, so she wouldn't be working tonight.  Filling in cleaning assignments around her shifts had been fairly easy, but now she wouldn't have cleaning assignments.  How was she going to pay for Jonah's tuition for preschool?

     She swallowed hard as she gazed into Jonah's eyes.  "Yes, we're going to your open house.  Are you ready?"

     He jumped up and down.  "Let's go."

     Jeannette couldn't believe her "mountain man" had complained about her.  Not after the deal they'd made.  She still remembered the feel of his strong fingers around hers, the outdoor, male-scent of him, the soberness in his eyes.

     She should have known better than to trust a stranger.  Now she'd have to look for another job to fit with her schedule at LipSmackin' Ribs.  That wouldn't be easy.

     She was walking down Oak Avenue with Jonah when she spotted a silver SUV pull up to the curbside parking meter.  That SUV looked just like the one that had been in the log house's garage—

     She couldn't believe her eyes when the acerbic stranger himself climbed out of the vehicle!  As he rounded his SUV, he was heading straight for the Mops and Brooms office.

     His Stetson brim was pulled low and today he wore sunglasses.  What was he doing here?  Hadn't he done enough damage?

     When he saw her, he stopped short.  A trace of a smile turned up the corners of his lips.  "Well, hello.  I didn't expect to see you here."

     "No, I suppose not," she returned frostily.  She couldn't see his eyes today, just her own reflection in his mirrored sunglasses.

     "A little cold out this morning," he joked and she could see he was obviously trying to lighten her mood.  Why would he be doing that?  Wouldn't he have known what had just happened to her?

     "Is this your son?" he asked, even as his eyes dropped to her hand, checking for a wedding ring.  He saw none there. She'd never had the chance to wear one.

     "I'm Jonah," the little boy piped up, and Jeannette almost wanted to groan.  He was too friendly.  She'd talked to him about strangers more than once, but it obviously hadn't gotten through.

     "Jonah's a great name.  Where are you off to?  That backpack looks new."

     Proudly, Jonah swiveled around so the man could get a better view.

     "Sponge Bob.  All right.  I guess you're headed off to school."

     "Open house," Jonah told him.  "I'm gonna meet my teacher and other kids, too.  Mommy says I have to sit still.  I don't think I'm gonna like that.  But she says we're gonna draw and make things and dance and jump around.  So it might be okay."

     The mountain man had to laugh at Jonah's unfettered enthusiasm.  Jeannette wanted to bundle up her son and hurry him off to her car.  But he really didn't see many people, other than her, Edna and Mel.

     "If you're going to preschool, I'll bet you're about...four," the man guessed.

     "I'm four-and-a-half," Jonah informed him.  "My birthday's in Febwary.  Mommy says I was her Val-en-tine's Day present."

     Jeannette could see the man was finding it hard not to laugh again.  She just wanted to be on their way, even though she still felt that darn tug of attraction toward him.  How could she when he'd gotten her fired?  And yet he was acting so natural.

     "We've got to be going," she said stiffly.

     But he didn't move to the side to let them pass.  After a moment of studying her, he said, "I'm sorry about yesterday.  I overreacted when I first came in.  I should have never been so...gruff."

     He was apologizing for acting rude when he'd gotten her fired?  Somehow that didn't make sense.

     Jonah wasn't getting the man's attention anymore and he didn't like that, so he tugged on his sleeve.  "Mommy and I got up early this morning to come here.  But she got fired."  He looked up at Jeanette.  "But we didn't have to call the firemen or anything."

     The man in front of her suddenly went still.  He flipped off his sunglasses and hung them on his shirt pocket.  "So that's why you're acting like this," he mused.  "You think I complained to the cleaning service."

     She wasn't sure what was going on and her voice wasn't quite steady when she asked, "Didn't you?"

     "No.  I was coming here this morning to try to get you a raise—to compliment everything you'd done for me.  I made a promise yesterday, remember?"

     "Sometimes promises don't mean all that much."  She remembered all the times Ed had told her they'd get married, but then he'd kept putting it off.

     "I stand by my promises.  What happened?"

     "Well, if you didn't do it..."  She paused.  "The manager said business is slow and it was just a case of last hired, first fired.  So I guess maybe that was true."

     "I imagine not as many people are using cleaning services these days.  It's still hard times for a lot of folks.  If you'd like, maybe I can get you reinstated."

     "How is that possible?"

     His green eyes were probing as they assessed her, and she had no idea what he was looking for.

     Out of the conversation now, Jonah was getting bored.  "Can we go?  You can come, too."

     She crouched down to her son.  "Oh, no, Jonah, I'm sure he can't."

     "I hope you learn everything you need to know at your open house," he said to her son, then his gaze fell on her again.  "Would you like to go to lunch and talk about this some more?" He motioned to Mops and Brooms.  "Your job?"

     She stood.  "Oh, I can't go to lunch.  I start my other job at 11:00, waiting tables at LipSmackin' Ribs."

     The sexy stranger scowled and she wondered if he looked down on that kind of work.  She'd been everything from a dog groomer to an assistant in a hair salon and said defensively, "It pays the bills."

     "I always stick my foot in it with you, don't I?"  He shook his head.  "I'm a friend of Dillon Traub's.  His cousin, DJ, owns the Rib Shack.  He's not pleased about the new competition, and I'm not all that impressed with the atmosphere at LipSmackin' Ribs.  But that has nothing to do with you.  Why don't I meet you when your shift ends?"

     "I have to pick up Jonah at his babysitter's."

     "Coffee break?" he teased.

     When this man smiled, she felt something like hot butter running through her veins.  She was amazed at his persistence. It had been about seven years since Ed had asked her on their first date.  Since her fiancé's accident, she hadn't even thought about seeing another man.

     But this one—

     "You can even call Dillon for a reference if you need one."  He took out his wallet, found a business card and handed it to her.

     Jeannette glanced at it.  Dr. Dillon Traub.  She'd heard gossip in the restaurant about the doctor who was an heir to an oil fortune.  There were two numbers.  She was resisting this invitation because her good sense was telling her that she should.  Besides, she didn't feel comfortable having to ask Ed's parents to watch Jonah so she could go on a date.  Still...  She'd heard Dr. Traub had opened a clinic in downtown Thunder Canyon.  He was more than a reputable citizen, even though she wasn't sure about his brother, Jackson.  Other rumors that had made the rounds had said he'd caused a scene at his brother Corey's wedding in June.

     "I don't even know your name," she said with another glance at Dillon's card.

     When this stranger who wanted to date her didn't respond, she lifted her eyes to his.  He canvassed her expression, then answered, "My name is Zane."

     "Just Zane?" she asked.

     Again he gave her a probing look.  "Just Zane.  For now."

     One thing she usually wasn't, was impulsive.  How could she be with a son to think about?  But right now, losing her job, not knowing what was on the horizon, she felt a little reckless.  Not reckless enough to be alone with this man, though.

     "Why don't you come for dinner tonight at my apartment?  Jonah can be our chaperone."  She thought that might put him off.  She thought he might make an excuse, back out, run the other way.  But she was sadly mistaken if she thought that's what he was going to do.

     He considered her suggestion long enough to make her think he might refuse.  Finally he said, "But I don't want you to have to do the work, so I'll bring the food.  Okay?"

     What man brought food when he was invited over?  And what had she just done?

     Jonah started jumping up and down again, proving he'd been listening to the conversation.  "You're gonna come to our place.  Mom says my toys are everywhere."

     Zane shook his head and suppressed a grin.  "When I come over, you can show me some of those toys."  His gaze fell on Jeanette then and she couldn't seem to look away.

     This stranger was coming to dinner at her apartment.  Was she crazy?

     "Second thoughts?" he asked, seeming to read her mind as his grin faded.  He took his cell phone from the holster on his belt and handed it to her.  "Go ahead and call Dillon's cell.  He doesn't start seeing patients until 9:00."

     She studied Zane's phone which was a pay-as-you-go model. She'd thought about purchasing one of those.  Before she changed her mind, she jabbed in the number.  Obviously Zane wanted her to do it herself to prove he wasn't scamming her.

     Her call was answered on the second ring.  "Hi, Zane.  Did you—?"

     "It's not Zane," she explained quickly.  "My name is Jeannette Williams and Zane gave me your name as a reference.  We're going to have dinner.  I guess I want to know...  Well I have a son and—"

     There was a short silence then the doctor's voice telling her, "I'll definitely vouch for Zane.  We've known each other since we were little.  He's a good friend and always there when I need him.  And he likes kids."

     When she was silent, he asked, "Is there anything else you need to know?"

     Everything, she thought.  But then she said, "No.  That's all for now."

     "If you need to call again, you have my number."

     Jeannette ended the call and turned to Zane.  "Not as many second thoughts," she admitted with a smile.  She gave him her address.  "Is seven okay?"

     "Seven is fine."

     When she handed him his phone, their fingers brushed and she quickly pulled away, tingling from a current she didn't understand.

     She had a date tonight with a stranger with no last name but good references.

     What was she thinking?   


Copyright:  2011 by Harlequin Books
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.

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