THE WRANGLER :   Excerpt

thewrangler

Harlequin American
Coming December 8, 2009

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Time's running out for Samantha Davies.

If it's the last thing she does before losing her sight completely, she has got to find out whether Montana's wild, Baer Mountain mustangs are real or simply the stuff of bedtime stories. And nothing—not even a bullheaded, devilishly handsome wrangler named Clint McAlister—is going to stop her.

How could Clint stop a firecracker like Samantha? So what if her eyes are as green as spring grass? Or that she sits a horse like a cowboy's sweetest dream. Clint almost got his heart broken by one high-toned city girl. All he has to do is keep his hands and his heart to himself until this one goes back where she came from and leaves him—and the mustangs—alone.

excerpt

Chapter One

He was six-foot-one of rock hard muscle.  Every last inch of him one-hundred percent, prime-cut cowboy. 

And he caused Samantha Davies to slam on the brakes.

Clinton McAlister, she thought, lifting her foot and slowly edging over to the side of the road.  It had to be.

He pounded a metal post into the ground to her right, seeming to be oblivious to her arrival at the Baer Mountain Ranch.  She’d been told what he looked like by the local town’s people, recognized the cowboy hat he wore right down to the distinctive brown and white feather tucked into its side.  What she hadn’t expected.  No, what no verbal description could ever convey, was the sheer size of him.  Or the way his sleeveless white shirt would cling to his sweat-stained body.  Nor how his muscular arms would glisten beneath a noon-day sun.

“My, my, my,” she murmured.

Okay.  Get a grip.

She wasn’t here to ogle him.  She had a business proposition for Mr. McAlister, and there was no time like the present to talk to him.

She edged to the side of the road, checking her rearview mirror as she did so.  No one behind her.  Not that she’d expected anyone this far from civilization.  She was on a private gravel road, one that stretched for miles behind her, acres and acres of Montana grassland stretching to the left and right.  Straight ahead, the Big Belt Mountains stood tall, snow covering the tops of them like icing on a cake.  They seemed to be far off in the distance, but she knew the Baer Family owned land right up into those mountains.  Coming from a big city, the sheer scope of what they owned took her breath away.  The fence line that the man worked on probably stretched all the way to the base of that mountain range.  Amazing. 

Speaking of that cowboy…even from inside her road-weary car she could hear the clink-clink-clink of metal-on-metal.  It must have masked the sound of her approach because he still hadn’t turned.

She shut off her car, thought for a moment about honking, than nixed the idea. Better to greet him personally. 

A stiff breeze all but slapped her in the face the moment she slipped out of the warm interior of the car.  A thunderstorm off to her left.  Though her vision wasn’t what it used to be, she’d been able to follow its progress as she’d approached the Baer Mountain Ranch.  The wind from its leading edge kicked blades flat, pressing Mr. McAlister’s buttoned-down shirt against his back, and tugging at her own short brown strands.

“Hello,” she called out.

He didn’t hear her.  The breeze had snatched her words away like an invisible thief.  That same wind almost caught Mr. McAlister’s hat.  He reached for it quickly, but he had to turn toward her, dipping his head toward the wind, in order to stop it from blowing away.

He caught sight of her.

“Hi,” she said, waving.

He didn’t answer.  But that was okay.  Sam was incapable of speech, anyway.  His shirt was open in the front.  And that chest…

Oh, my.

Six perfectly symmetrical muscles bulged, the upper portion covered by a light dusting of hair.  But even more startling were his eyes.   Luminous, they were.  Blue.  But so light in color, they almost seemed glow.  Those eyes narrowed in on her.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said.

Blond brows drew together in what could only be called a frown.  Obviously, he hadn’t been expecting company.  Not surprising given they were at least thirty miles from Williams, Montana—and at least two miles from his home—if her navigation system was correct.  She must have been a sight standing there in her fancy floral skirt, white blouse and sensible shoes.

She should have worn jeans.

“Can I help you?” he called out at last, as if he’d weighed within himself the need to be polite over the need to be out and out rude.  Polite had obviously won out, but a blind person would have heard the irritation in his voice.  She hadn’t gone blind just yet—not officially, at least—but she didn’t need eyes to know he was not happy to see her.  Why? she wondered.

“Do you always treat your fence posts like that?” she asked, trying to coax a smile out of him.  “Or was it something it said?”

He glanced at the dark-green rod he’d been pounding into the ground.  On either side of it strands of barbwire hung like Christmas tinsel, the wire’s barbs glinting beneath the noonday sun.

“Someone ran into the old one,” he said, nodding toward an L-shaped post on the ground.  “Needs to be replaced before our cattle get loose.” 

He delivered the words monotone.  No hint of emotion.  Not even a tiny twinkle in his eyes.

“Does that happen often?” she asked with a grin of her own.  “Cows making a run for the hills?”

He tipped his hat back, wiped his forehead with his arm while he scanned her blue rental car—as if expecting to see someone else inside.  He wore gloves, she noticed, the beige leather palms worn smooth like black patent-leather.

“More often than you might think,” he said.

“Oh yeah?” she asked with another smile.  “Then it must be true.”

He stared at her, clearly puzzled.  “What must be true?”

“That the grass is always greener on the other side.”  She amped up the volume of her smile.  “Or taller, as the case may be.”

He stared at her for a long moment, as if trying to determine if she was mentally challenged, or just some kind of door-to-door salesman, probably the later which might explain why he stared at her so sternly.

“If you’ve lost your way,” he said, “the main road is back the other direction.”  He lifted the metal pole he’d been using to pound the post into the ground.

“Actually,” she called out, making her way around the front of her car.  “I’m here to see you.”

He straightened again.

“At least, I think I’m here to see you.”  Her rubber soles crunched with every step she took—as if it ate the rocks she trod upon.  “You are Clinton McAlister, aren’t you?”

If she thought he’d appeared irritated before, it was nothing compared to the glance he shot her now.  “Look, lady.  Whatever you’re selling, I ain’t buying.  So you can just turn that car right around.  I’m not interested.”

Aha.  So he did think she was selling something.

“I’m not selling anything,” she said.

His brows lifted.  “No?” he asked.

This was the man who’d graduated from U.C. Davis Magna Cum Laude, she found herself thinking.  Who had a degree in veterinary medicine?  Who used words like “ain’t” and “lady”…like some kind of cartoon cowboy?

“You are Clinton McAlister, aren’t you?” she asked. 

He didn’t answer.

But he had to be.  She’d been told what to expect.  Sort of.  Because what people had failed to tell her was how incredibly handsome he was.  Sam was tall, well above average height, and so she wasn’t used to men who stood a full head taller than herself.  And he was fit.  She’d always been attracted to men with wide shoulders, but Clinton McAlister looked more like a member of a rowing team than a cowboy.   

The clouds in the distance let out a rumble, one that sounded pretty close.  They both turned.  Rain hung in streamers from the bottom of nearby cloud, the top so bibulous it resembled some sort of gigantic tick.  Samantha began to wonder if they shouldn’t seek cover.

“Really.  I’m not here to sell you something,” she repeated, over the fading sound of thunder.  “I’m here to talk to you about the Baer Mountain Mustangs.”

That got his attention.  She could see his black irises flare, although what, exactly, “it” was, she couldn’t tell.  Wariness maybe.  Or surprise.  Maybe even dismay.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, turning back to his task.

She rushed forward.  “Mr. McAlister, wait,” she said.  “I know you’re thinking I’ll just go away if you deny it, but I’m not like the other people who’ve come here seeking for answers.  I know they exist.”

There was an embankment to the right of the road, one whose steep slope was camouflaged by thick grass.  Unfortunately, with her narrowing field of vision, she neglected to calculate just how sharp an incline it was.  She went careening toward him like a wind-driven beach ball, very nearly skidding into him.  The only reason she stopped was because he reached out and stopped her.  Samantha gasped.

He was sweaty.  His body was hard.  He smelled like leather and sage.

And she was very, very attracted to him.

No sense in denying it.  She hadn’t been around for nearly thirty years not to recognize the signs.  A sudden awkwardness.  The buzz in her stomach that spread to…other places.  The inability to hold his gaze because if she continued to stare up at him, he might see an unmistakable glint of interest in her eyes.

“Lady, you should get back in your car and drive back to town.  I don’t know nothing about no Baer Mountain Mustangs and that storm’s approaching fast.  Road’ll be washed out if you don’t hurry.”

She finally caught her breath, stepped back from him.  “Sorry,” she said.  “About almost knocking your over, but I’m not going anywhere.  Not until you and I talk.”

He was back to glaring at her again and Samantha was helpless to stop staring at his eyes.  They were the most remarkable color she’d ever seen and it was all she could do not to lean in and examine them closer.  So blue.  So light.  So…pure.

“You’re wasting your time,” he said, turning away from her.

She was almost relieved that he’d broken eye contact.  “Wasting my time how?” she asked.  “Wasting my time trying to convince you that I know all about the mustangs?  Or in getting you to admit they exist?”

He picked up the metal tool again—he’d dropped it to stop her awkward descent—and she noticed then that it was a large pipe that was capped off at one end.  He fit it over the top of the fence post and then, with a bunching of muscles, he lifted, shoving the pipe down hard.

Bam

Ouch,” she cried, plugging her ears.  It was like being inside a bell.

Clinton McAlister didn’t appear to notice.

She moved away from him.  Her peripheral vision might be fading fast, but a sudden darkening of the ground around them told her that the thunderstorm was almost on top of them—just as he’d predicted.

“Mr. McAlister,” she called because he was lifting that pipe again.  “I’m not going to go away.  Not until you and I talk.”  She hadn’t driven nearly two thousand miles to simply slink away.

“So talk,” he said.

Bam.

She plugged her ears again.  “I know about the mustangs,” she said again during a break in sound.  “I know that, somehow, the Baer family has managed to hide their existence all these years.”  She covered her ears just in time to avoid the next bang.  “And I know you’re the man in charge of the secret herd.”

He turned to her.  Sam let loose a sigh of relief.  Maybe he was willing to talk after all.

“Secret herd?” he said, lifting a derogatory brow in her direction.

Just then the loudest clap of thunder she’d ever heard blasted through the air.  Sam yelped.  Clinton said, “Time for to go.”

She turned around.  It was still a little ways off, but close enough that she could smell rain in the air.

“Look, can we sit in my car for a second and talk about this?”

“Nothing to talk about,” he said, reaching in his pocket.  He pulled out a metallic rod of some sort.  Sam watched as he made quick work of attaching the loose wire to the metal post.

“All I’m asking for is a minute.”  She said.  And then she straightened, a sudden though occurring.  “Just how’d you get out here, anyway?”

The smile he gave her could only be called smug.  He whistled.

Sam straightened in surprise.  But almost instantly she heard the sound of horse’s hooves, and if there was one thing she knew, it was horseflesh.  The animal that cantered toward her was one of the most beautiful dappled grays she’d ever seen.  Black mane and tail, black legs, and a pair of eyes nearly as luminous as his owner’s.

A Baer Mountain Mustang.  She would bet her life on it.

To her shock, the horse came to a sliding stop practically right next to them, Clinton shooting her a glance—as if curious if she’d move out of the way.  She didn’t.  She’d been around horses long enough to know she had nothing to fear.

But she’d never seen anything like the horse that pawed the ground.  He almost resembled an Andalusian, only his head resembled a Quarter Horse, and those eyes….   

“Is his name Trigger?” she asked as he tapped the ground with his right hoof.

“No, Buttercup,” he quipped right back.

He’d mistaken her words for sarcasm.  But she’d been curious.  Sometimes a horse’s name was a clue to its heritage. 
Well, okay, maybe there’d been a tiny edge of sarcasm to her words.  But only in the movies did horses come to their master’s call.  And even then the only did so because some poor sod was behind the cameras with a bucket of grain in hand.  Clinton had no such bucket.  He calmly walked up to the horse, slipped the metal pipe he’d used to repair the fence into a leather sheath, then mounted up.

“Where are you going?”

Just then it started to rain, not tiny droplets of water, either, but fat globules that began to soak through her blouse almost instantly.

“That lightening cloud will be overhead before you know it.  Best to get under cover.”

“But where are you going?” she asked, even though she knew.

He tipped his hat at her.  “Pleasure meeting you, ma’am.”

And then Clinton McAlister road off, not into the sunset, but into the torrential downpour of a thunderstorm.

 

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