Excerpt: Crazy About A Cowboy

Crazy About A Cowboy by Barbara McMahon

Book Four: Cowboy Heroes Series

Sam Haller saw her across the crowded stockyard in the glare of the noonday sun. Shooting the bull with a bunch of cowhands was part and parcel of the stock sales, and Sam had been leaning against the rail fence, one booted foot resting on the bottom rung, swapping tall tales with the best of them when his gaze was caught.

Dust hung in the air, dry as a desert, churned up by the horses and cattle crisscrossing the stockyard. The background noise of bawling bulls and the occasional shrill whinny of a horse was ignored almost unheard.

In that instant, everything came to a crashing halt. Sam stared, ignoring the other men, the heat of the sun, the cacophony of sound. He felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. Time stood still. Slowly he lowered his foot, standing to his full height, his gaze never moving from her.

Memories flooded his mind; her laugh, her tears, the fights they’d had, the making up, making love long into the night. They’d been crazy in love, crazy in lust or just plain crazy.

It felt as if a vice gripped his heart. He hadn’t seen her in two years, except once, briefly, when he’d had to take Joey home early and no ranch hand had been available to deliver him. The jumble of emotions from that day stayed with him for a long time insuring he didn’t risk another encounter.

What was she doing in a stockyard in Fort Worth, Texas, when he thought she was in Denver? And who was the man she was talking with? Laughing with.

Jealousy churned as he watched. Was it an illusion? Or the real Lisa? For months after she left, he’d thought he’d spotted her a dozen times. Impossible since she moved away from Texas and on to Colorado. Was this another instance of imagining he saw her everywhere he went?

“Hey, Haller, you going off in a trance?” one of the men in his group asked. The rest laughed, one looking in the direction Sam was staring.

“From the looks of that babe, guess our Sam is finally going to break down and show he’s human,” another man joked.

Sam scowled and glared at Tim Higgins. He readjusted his Stetson and resumed his casual pose leaning against the fence, though every fiber of his being urged him to take off across the stockyard and confront Lisa. Find out what she was doing in Texas. See her, speak to her. Touch her.

Deliberately he turned away, tried to focus on what the men were talking about. Jeez, he had it bad. Still. They’d been divorced two years. It was over. When was he going to accept it and move on? When was he going to see another woman and really be interested in her?

“If you mean that bay mare, you’re right. I wouldn’t mind having her. If she throws true, I’d have some fine get,” Sam said, hoping to bluff his way through.

One of the cowpokes slapped another on the shoulder. “Should have known Sam’s coveting some horse. He never cuts loose like the rest of us.”

None of the men present, recent acquaintances, knew about his marriage. He planned to keep it that way. No man liked to admit failure. Especially when it was his own fault.

As soon as he could without causing comment, he offered to buy everyone a round of drinks at the bar that night, and headed off. Deliberately heading away from Lisa, he studied some of the cattle for sale, talked with one man at length about one of the bulls, but his mind wasn’t on stock.

It revolved around Lisa. If it had been Lisa, where was she now? Had she left, or was she wandering around with that man checking out the sale animals?

A casual glance in the surrounding area let him know he wasn’t being observed by anyone. Turning swiftly, he headed for the spot where he’d seen her.

She was gone.

He stood for a moment in indecision, then headed in the direction she’d been facing. In less than ten minutes he caught up with her. She stood to one side, out of the main swirl of traffic, jotting notes in the sales catalog, then glancing up to study one of the bulls penned in the shade.

He hesitated, wanting to speak to her, knowing they had nothing left to say. Hadn’t it all been said years ago?

Yet the pull of connection was still there. He tried not to think about her that would drive him crazy. But seeing her again – maybe it was fate.

What could it hurt to just say hi? It wasn’t as if they couldn’t be civil. Saying hi wasn’t a declaration of intent. Not that they had a prayer of getting back together. There was too much between them. More than even Lisa knew.

Almost without volition, his feet carried him in her direction. When he drew close enough to smell her flowery scent over the dusty air and pungent cattle, he halted. It wasn’t too late to turn and walk away, she hadn’t seen him yet.

But Sam Haller wasn’t a coward.

“Hello, Lisa.”

She spun around, her eyes widening.

“Sam! I didn’t expect to see you.”

“What are you doing here, then?”

She tilted her head, her eyes narrowing. “I’m on an assignment for my boss.”

“An insurance agent in Denver?” he asked in disbelief.

She shook her head. “I’ve changed jobs.”

He waited, watching as she rolled the catalog up in her hands, unrolled it. Was Lisa as nervous as he felt? He pulled the brim of his hat down a bit lower, tucked his fingers in the back pocket of his jeans, his gaze never leaving her. He tried to ignore the rush of blood through his veins. Damp down the feelings that threatened to rise.

She looked great. Her glossy brown hair held back from her face with clips, fell in waves across her shoulders. The checked shirt was opened at the throat, revealing her pale skin. The snug jeans fit like a second skin. He remembered peeling them off her, touching every inch of her satiny skin as it became revealed.

Swallowing hard, he shifted a bit to ease the growing tightness in his own jeans.

She looked away. “I’m working here now in Fort Worth. I missed Texas. And my folks wanted to be able to see Joey more often and more easily.”

Joey, their son. A link between the two of them that would never cease.

“As I do, especially now that he’s older,” Sam said.

She twisted the catalog. “I got the notice from your attorney. Why now? Why change anything? You didn’t want him when we separated.”

“That’s not true. But a baby needs his mother. He’s three now, and a little boy needs a dad.”

“And his mother!” she said, facing him again.

“I never said he didn’t. You asked why I was petitioning for more time with him at this juncture. I explained. It would make it easier if you’d just come home to Tumbleweed.”

Easier to deal with Joey, harder to live with the fact their marriage had ended so abruptly, if Lisa was living in town where he’d run the risk of seeing her unexpectedly at any time.

“I don’t want to do that,” she said quickly.

“Why not? It’s your home.”

It was an argument that had raged for days when she first left him. She’d refused to stay in Tumbleweed insisting she needed distance and her own space. So she’d uprooted their baby, said goodbye to all she’d known, and moved to Denver. The distance alone made it almost impossible for a busy rancher to get time to see his son. A subtle way to make her point, but one he’d been powerless to defend against.

“I have a nice apartment here in Fort Worth. And a good job. There’s nothing for me in Tumbleweed.”

“You had a nice place in Tumbleweed.”

“Your ranch?”

“It was ours when we married.”

“It was always yours. Yours and Nick’s.”

At the mention of his brother, Sam’s blood began to heat. Nick had been the final straw in their rocky relationship. The brother she should have married, he thought again, remembering their last blowup.

Then remembering all the lonely days and nights since Lisa had left. Once again Sam wondered if she had hoped Nick would follow her once she was free.

Some perverse gene had him say, “You know, it’s probably past time Joey came home to stay. He’ll inherit half the ranch, time he starts learning about how to run it. It would be easier if you lived in Tumbleweed. But it doesn’t matter. I will have my son in my home at least half a year.” It was something he’d discussed with his attorney. Jason Ronald had advised waiting a bit longer before pushing for joint custody primarily because of the distance between the two households. But all bets were off now that Lisa had moved back to Texas.

If he couldn’t have his wife, he at least could have his son.

“He’s only three. Too young to learn about ranching,” she said, almost shaking with sudden anger.

“Joey’s as much my son as he is yours. He can learn a lot by observation. Can’t start too young,” Sam said easily, amazed to hear his voice sound so calm. He wanted to reach out and snatch her close, hug her against him until she softened and put her arms around him like she used to do. Feel her soft body press against his. Rant and rave at her for leaving. For not wanting him as much as he had wanted her.

What would she do if he kissed her until she was pliant and willing, and as hot for him as she’d once been.

He was fascinated by the soft curve of her lips, the hint of color high in her cheeks, the flashing blue eyes that glared at him. At least it beat indifference.

But it still hurt.

Where had they gone wrong? Had they ever had enough between them to make their marriage work? Had he been fooling himself for years that what they had was more than a sexual attraction that flared in bed and could not sustain itself anywhere else?

“He’s too young. He needs– “

“Lisa! There you are.”

Sam turned to look at the man hurrying over to them. It was the same one he’d seen Lisa laughing with earlier. Dark haired, not quite six feet, he looked young maybe twenty-five. Lisa might not think that so young, closer to her age than he was.

His attire was brand new his boots still had the shine on them, despite walking around the dusty stockyard. Sam was not impressed. Where had she picked up the urban cowboy?

“I think one of the bulls I wanted is going on the block now,” he said eagerly

“Okay, I’m coming.” She threw a dark look at Sam. “I’m through here.”

The stranger looked at Sam, not picking up on the tension. He smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Bill Taylor. Lisa works for me. You a friend of hers?”

Sam slowly gripped Taylor’s hand, his look one of sudden amusement. “You could say that. We go back a long ways. I’m Sam Haller.”

Bill looked from one to the other, a puzzled expression in his face.

“Same last name.”

“Lisa was my wife,” Sam said.

Bill looked from one to the other, then nodded once. “Lisa just started working for me. She knows a lot about cattle. I just unexpectedly inherited a ranch from a distant relative so I really need someone to show me the ropes.” Bill looked from one to another again, obviously at a loss on how to handle the situation.

Sam dismissed Bill and glanced at Lisa. “I have work on my ranch,” he said. “If you wanted a change from Denver, all you had to do is ask.”

“Sorry, I snapped her up first. She’s a whiz on the computer, and knows more about cattle than I’ll probably ever learn,” Bill said quickly.

“She staying at your place?” Sam asked. He didn’t like Bill Taylor. And he didn’t like knowing Lisa was working for another rancher. What happened to the innocuous office job in Denver? The place that contained more women than men, and where the lines of relationships were sharply drawn?

Bill laughed and shook his head, his friendly gaze moving to Lisa. “No, she won’t even consider living on the ranch. She’s an independent woman. But I don’t need her to ride and rope. The office work can be done anywhere so the set up in her apartment suits me fine. Gives me an excuse to leave the ranch periodically anyway. We better go, Lisa, I don’t want to miss that bull.”

“I’ll be in touch,” Sam said, his narrowed gaze on Lisa. “Real soon.”

She shook her head, but said nothing as she hurried along with Bill Taylor.

Sam watched her hips sway enticingly as she quickly crossed the dirt expanse. Her rich chestnut hair bounced against her back, glossy and shimmering in the sunshine. He wanted to tangle his fingers in that silky mass as he used to. He wanted to feel the swell of her hips, the taut, sleek muscles beneath that velvet skin.

He wanted his wife like he’d never wanted anyone. Still, with a hunger that never went away.

Ex-wife.

When was he going to remember that? Or all the complications that made it a certainty that’s the way it would stay?

Sam Haller had been at the sale for two days. He’d be heading home tomorrow with a truck load of new stock to deliver. But now that he knew Lisa lived in Fort Worth, he’d be back.

***

Lisa hurried to keep up with Bill. He was so enthusiastic about his first auction about every aspect of ranching. Of course he’d only been at it a few months. Wait until he had a hard winter and lost half his herd, or the price of beef dropped to the basement, or anthrax threatened, she thought cynically.

Then frowned. No sense letting Sam get to her. Bill was refreshing to be around, fun, excited, and enthusiastic. She was lucky to get such a great job where she could stay at home, or take Joey with her when she had to visit the ranch. She was doing what she knew and loved.

She’d been miserable in Denver. If she hadn’t been so prideful and stubborn, she would never have run so far.

And that’s exactly what she’d done, no matter how she tried to dress it up. She’d run like a scared rabbit from Sam and the mess they’d made of their lives.

Dodging a group of cowboys studying a pretty mare, she glanced over her shoulder, wondering if he’d followed them. She couldn’t help thinking about Sam. She hadn’t expected to see him today. Though if she’d thought about it at all, she knew he went to stock shows all the time constantly on the lookout for good lines to improve his herd. It would have only been a matter of time before she’d run into him at events such at this.

But she’d like to think she would have been better prepared if she’d had more time. Wishful thinking? Or would time work to ease the uncertainty that filled her? To erase the feelings and emotions that always rose so strongly when she thought about Sam?

Bill scrambled up the small set of bleachers, shaded by a flapping canvas tarp high overhead. Lisa climbed up behind him, glancing around once more to see if she could spot Sam. There were dozens of men milling around. A woman here and there showed the growing change in ranching, which was still predominantly a man’s world. No sign of Sam. She wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or not.

The auction went smoothly at least Lisa thought it did. Most of her attention was focused inward. On seeing Sam again and the emotions that churned since he’d spoken her name. Instant heat had flooded through her. Then a vague yearning.

Now fear grew. How serious was he about requesting more time with Joey? She loved her son, wanted to protect him against all of life’s hurt and disappointments. And she for sure didn’t want him growing up as suspicious and distrusting as his father.

But how could she fight the Hallers? Their ranch was prosperous in an era when more and more ranches were folding. Their roots went as deep in Texas soil as her own. And Sam hadn’t fled the scene as she had. He had a solid background while she had lived in three different places in two years and had a total of $173 in savings.

Blindly, she stared at the bull being paraded in front of the crowd waiting to bid for it. She tuned out the drone of the auctioneer. Instead, the years faded and she was that naive twenty-two year old who had been so crazy about Sam Haller, she’d thrown caution to the wind and pursued him until he married her. She’d been dumb, foolish and stupid. All the things she hoped she’d learned from and wouldn’t repeat if she ever decided to take a chance on a relationship again.

But the hurt from their divorce was too fresh even after two years. She had not dated in that time. Devoting herself to her baby, she’d found contentment in making a home for Joey, and in finding out she could work, earn a living, and become a respected member of the adult world on her own.

If she had a magic wand, however, she’d go back and change things. Change herself. Maybe even change the outcome of her marriage.

“The one we want is up next,” Bill said, almost bouncing on the bench.

Lisa smiled, trying to bring herself into the present. She owed her employer her attention. She was lucky to get this job. To find a nice apartment in Fort Worth, only two hours from Tumbleweed. Her parents were thrilled hoping to see more of Joey, their first and so far, only grandchild.

If her sister didn’t marry, Joey would end up being their only grandchild forever, she thought sadly.

When she’d first married Sam, she’d planned on a half dozen boys and girls. She had wanted to fill that rambling old house of his with laughter and joy.

Instead, they fought like cats and dogs.

She wished she could blame him as she had when filing. But with the years apart had come maturity, and the knowledge she’d been equally at fault.

The only purely happy times were when they had been in bed. And she didn’t dwell on those times it hurt too much to know she wouldn’t ever have anything like it again.

Sam had been the sexiest man she’d ever known. That hadn’t changed. And she’d felt like a different person when he focused that blatant male attention on her. His kisses had been pure bliss. His touch had inflamed her instantly. Just thinking about it had her bothered all over again. She shifted on the bleacher and tried to focus on the sale in progress.

Get a grip, she told herself. Seeing him had upset her.

And started her hormones dancing. She needed to concentrate on the threat of his taking Joey, not imagining him reaching out to kiss her, touch her, drive her to the heights of delight with his mouth and hands and body.

Had coming back to Texas been a mistake? Should she have kept her distance? Stayed in Denver? No use second guessing things now. She’d made the move, and she planned to stay in Texas.

She’d been so homesick, so lonely away from family and friends in Denver. She’d grown up since leaving. She could handle whatever life threw her way now. She was staying in Texas. And somehow she’d figure out a way to deal with Sam and Joey and all the problems that arose between divorced people who both loved their child.