Rebel Heart Excerpt

Book One: The Harts of Texas Series

Chapter One

Wiping her damp palms on the seat of her jeans, Shannon Blackstone tilted her chin and walked down the hospital corridor, trying for a confident and assured look. Her heart pounded in her chest, her hands curled in nervous energy. Pausing by the curtain that shielded the cubicle from the busy hustle of the emergency room, she took a deep breath. Slowly she parted the curtain and peered in.

The man lying back on the high gurney caught the slight movement and turned his head, his eyes catching sight of her standing in the opening.

Come on in, darlin’. You looking for someone?” Jase Hart’s voice was husky and low and unexpectedly sexy.

Shannon took another breath then darted a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure no one hovered about to challenge her right to speak to the patient. Seeing the way clear, she slipped through, the curtains giving the illusion of privacy.

Even lying down, he looked big. His bare chest gleamed like bronze beneath the fluorescent lights. The light dusting of curly hair matched the color of the dark blond on his head. His muscles contracted, relaxed, rippling beneath the taut skin as he cradled his injured arm with his right hand. Dusty jeans looked out of place in the sterile environment, but eminently suited to him. The aged cowboy boots hung off the edge of the gurney, attesting to his height. To his profession.

She swallowed and stepped closer.

I’m Shannon Blackstone, Mr. Hart. I came to see if you’re all right,” she said, stopping four feet away, afraid to step closer. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Nerves she had expected, but not the startling pull of attraction. It had been ages since she’d felt the slightest interest in any man. And she never wanted to be interested in a cowboy again. Frowning slightly, she tried to ignore the fascination that slowly burgeoned within.

Well, sugar, you didn’t have to come all the way down here. I’ll be right as rain in no time. Couple of broken bones, nothing that won’t mend. Who are you, the hospital welcoming committee?” he asked, his gaze traveling across her, down her, taking in every inch of slender frame.

Shannon knew he wouldn’t be swept away by her looks. Clean and wholesome was as good as she got. Though, she recalled almost nostalgically, Bobby had once waxed poetic about her long black hair and smoky blue eyes. But then he’d waxed poetic about a lot of things, including bulls and broncs. She was neat, her long, dark hair pulled back into a single braid that hung down her back almost to her waist. Her Western shirt and sensible jeans were common attire for women in Texas. When she shook her head in response to his question, he sighed.

Figured as much, dressed as you are. All the nurses here wear some kind of informal uniform,” he mumbled, his eyes meeting hers again. His were silvery gray, fringed with thick, curly golden lashes that softened the hard planes and angles of his tanned face. For an instant heat flashed in his gaze, then wry amusement settled in.

Shannon’s internal temperature rose at his look. She stared at him, trying to keep her eyes on his, though they longed to roam over the superb male body lying there. His shirt lay with his hat on a nearby chair and her eyes filled with the vision of his wide masculine chest. The tanned skin covered well-defined muscles. The sprinkle of golden hair tantalizingly invited her fingers to brush through, to feel their crinkly texture. His belly was hard and tight, bisected by the snug jeans he still wore. His boots were old and scuffed and dusty. He raised one knee, placing the boot on the end of the gurney.

She sucked in a deep breath. He was a handsome buy and probably knew it. But she was determined to resist amy attraction. She’d had enough heartache to last her a lifetime. Cowboys were strictly off limits. Resolutely she held his gaze.

I saw you fall,” she said. “It looked bad.” For one horrified moment she had been afraid he’d been killed. That would have put paid to her plans.

He smiled, amusement dancing in his gray eyes. “So you came rushing to my side to give me aid?”

Hardly,” she said dryly. She stepped nearer, watching him closely, trying to determine the extent of his injuries. He continued to cradle one arm across his chest, and he hadn’t even attempted to sit up since she appeared. Did he have injuries other than the broken arm? A bruise spot high on his cheekbone discolored the even tan. Studying him warily, she asked, “How bad is it?”

Busted arm, cracked ribs. Be right as rain in a few weeks.” He dismissed it carelessly, as most of the men she knew would have done. They were so stubborn in their manly pride–unwilling to admit to any discomfort, no matter how hurt they were.

But not soon enough to get back on the rodeo circuit this year?” she asked.

Holds me back a bit,” he acknowledged. “But won’t put me out.”

Trying for the nationals?” She stalled, trying to find out more about him, trying to find a chink in the conversation to slip in her request. Slowly she wiped her damp palms against her jeans again.

Yep, going to make it all the way this year.” He was cocky, confident, and heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Which he probably used to his advantage when flirting with all the buckle bunnies who followed rodeo cowboys. She knew all about men like him. But she needed him.

Won’t being on the sidelines for a few weeks put an end to your chances?” She raised her eyebrows, not surprised at the cocky arrogance of the man. They were all alike, these rodeo cowboys, bold and brash and sure as anything that they were God’s gift to the world.

I’m high in the rankings. I just have to make sure I ride enough to get back up there when I get back into action.” He frowned. “Do I know you?”

She shook her head, biting her lip as the moment arrived. She wondered at her nerve, wondered if he’d agree to her plan or laugh in her face.

No, but you knew my husband, Bobby Blackstone.”

He stared at her, startled surprise clearly etched. His eyes lost their humor as he assessed her. “I didn’t know Bobby was married,” he said slowly.

She shrugged. “Can’t help that. He was, and to me.” For a moment the old anger and bitterness threatened to overwhelm her, but she clamped down on the emotions. Her marriage had ended a long time ago. No good would come from letting the old hurt swamp her now.

I rode some with Bobby before he died,” Jase said, as if denying her claim to the marriage.

We’d been married a year and a half when he died,” she said simply.

Jase fell silent, his eyes narrowed as he studied Shannon. She didn’t move a muscle. She wondered what thoughts filled his mind, but she wouldn’t ask. What he thought didn’t matter if only he’d listen to her request for help. She didn’t know what she’d do if he refused.

He never said he was married,” he said at last.

I’m not surprised. He didn’t much act married when he rode the circuit. He mentioned you to me a lot those last months. When I heard you were competing in the events today, I thought…I mean, I came to talk to you. I need some help and I thought you might listen, being a friend of Bobby’s and all. Now I wonder if maybe you’d need someplace to go while you’re healing.”

His lopsided smile charmed her. She stiffened at the reaction, frowning slightly. She didn’t want to like the man, only wanted to tap into his knowledge, get him to help her get back on her feet.

So you rushed down to offer a place to stay?” he asked, his eyebrows rising.

Sort of. Actually, I thought maybe you could help me out and I could help you out.”

Doing what, darlin’?” His eyes were dancing again, and this time his grin almost undid her. Her hands clenched tightly to resist reaching out to touch his muscular arm, to test the heat of his skin. Would he scorch her, or was his skin cool in the air-conditioned hospital? Either way, she had no business even wondering. She had come with a definite purpose!

Um, if you can’t ride for a while, maybe you need a place to stay? As it happens I need a knowledgeable cowboy to give me some pointers on ranching. So I thought we could work a trade. Room and board in return for some instruction.”

Pointers on ranching? You planning to buy a ranch?”

I already own one. It was Bobby’s and mine. I inherited it all when he died.”

That happened over a year ago. You only looking to get some pointers now?” he asked in disbelief.

I had a manager, Rod Thompson, but—”

The rasp of rings along the track interrupted as a tall nurse yanked back the curtains.

Who are you?” she asked, spying Shannon.

Before she could answer, Jase answered for her. “Kissin’ kin. She’s come to hold my hand while you torture me, sugar,” he said easily to the nurse. His wink caught Shannon by surprise. She half expected him to tell the nurse she was bothring him and ask for some privacy.

You hardheaded cowboys don’t even know the meaning of torture. The X-rays are done and the doctor’s waiting to set that arm. You can come along if you’re family,” the nurse said, turning to Shannon. She ignored the flirtatious banter of her patient, though the slight smile conveyed she enjoyed it.

As she maneuvered the gurney from the cubicle, Jase reached out with his good arm and snatched Shannon’s hand. Linking the fingers of his uninjured hand through hers, he tugged her along beside the trolley. Smiling up at her, he winked again. “I need moral support, darlin’, you wouldn’t want to desert me in my hour of need, now, would you? You can tell me more about why you came looking for me.”

Tingling sparks of attraction danced up her arm. Her eyes widened in surprise as she hurried to keep up with the gurney. She didn’t like feeling this way. She was content in her life. She had her ranch, and the prospects of making something of it, if she could only learn enough.

Jase radiated self-assurance. Did he expect women to fall over themselves to be with him? Had he misunderstood what she wanted?

The nurse was tall, with long legs and in no mood to dally with her patient. Shannon couldn’t have said a word if her life depended upon it as she hurried beside him, bemused by the glittering lights in Jase’s silvery eyes and by the shocking feelings coursing through her from his clasp. Of course she found him attractive, Shannon told herself, but that didn’t mean anything. She wasn’t going to give in to her feelings no matter what. She’d come here for business, not to get tangled up with some cocky rodeo cowboy, no matter how gorgeous he was, or what his smile made her feel.

Trying to yank free, she found that, injured or not, he was strong. His grasp didn’t hurt, but he let her know she would be free only at his say-so, not her own. She glanced at him, but his eyes were closed, a slight smile curling his lips. They were firm and chiseled. For one shocking moment Shannon wondered what they might feel like against her own. Appalled at her thoughts, she skipped another step and concentrated on keeping up with the brisk pace set by the nurse.

The doctor quickly applied plaster to Jase’s arm and, though he tried to keep from hurting his patient, Shannon knew Jase was in pain from the hard grip on her hand and the beads of sweat on his forehead. Yet he never said a word in complaint–keeping up his easy banter, flirting with the nurse, joking with the doctor. Even taking a second to check up on Shannon from time to time.

His forearm was broken in two places, two ribs cracked, and he had a slight bump on his head. The doctor treated each injury efficiently, while keeping up a steady lecture on the foolishness of rodeo riders.

No riding until the arm’s healed. Check with me before you go trying to kill yourself again,” the doctor grumbled, giving the cowboy a slap on his thigh when his ribs had been wrapped.

You know, doc, I wasn’t trying to kill myself, just ride the damn horse.”

Shannon shook her head in disgust. That’s what they all said, pretending it wasn’t dangerous. To them it was a sport, never mind the fear and heartache it brought their loved ones. That had been Bobby’s favorite saying, I’m only trying to ride the horse.

She tried to free her hand but Jase’s fingers tightened slightly and he tilted his head to see her.

Shannon, here, will take good care of me until I’m ready to comDinkagain, won’t you, darlin’?” he asked, his eyes brimming with some secret amusement.

Did that mean Jase was going to help her out?

She turned to the doctor. “Any special care?”

No, just no competition until he’s healed. I don’t envy you, young lady. These guys are never easy to deal with.”

She nodded, remembering her own husband and how she’d never understood him, never understood why he’d insisted on performing, competing, flirting with other women. She clamped down once again on the emotions that threatened her. She didn’t have time for them now. She could only go on, wiser now, she hoped.

Come on, cowboy, let’s get out of here. I’ll drop you where you want to go.”

She needed to get back on track, offer him the job and be on her way home. She didn’t like rodeos or hospitals and she’d had more than enough of both today.

Ten minutes later Jase and Shannon stood by her truck in the back parking lot of the hospital. He wore the shirt he’d competed in, torn, dusty, one sleeve gone, very much the worse for wear. It didn’t detract from his masculinity. On the contrary, it seemed to enhance it even more.

Shannon kept her gaze averted, feeling safer that way. All she wanted to do was get back on the road and head for home. She wanted him to come to the Bar Seven with her. She needed someone she could trust. And Bobby had spoken highly of Jase from the first. Would he help her for Bobby’s sake?

You want to tell me a little more about these pointers you want?” he asked, leaning against the side. He tilted his hat down until it shaded his face, shadowing his eyes. The pristine-white sling looked out of place against the dusty clothes, it seemed insubstantial against the broad chest and shoulders. Shannon hadn’t realized how tall he was until they’d left the hospital. He towered over her own slight frame.

It’s simple. I want to learn to run the ranch myself. I had a manager, but he snuck out a couple of weeks ago, taking all the ready cash in my account. I’m not going to make that mistake again,” Shannon said firmly. “I want to learn everything so I can run the place myself. I’ve had to learn the hard way men can’t be trusted.”

He leaned toward her at that comment.

Whoa, now, honey. One man steals some money and you come to the conclusion all men aren’t to be trusted?”

Oh, no, Jase, Rod Thompson wasn’t the only one to hammer home that lesson. Bobby Blackstone started the whole process. Rod only completed it.” She met his eyes, hers flashing.

His hand came up to brush across her cheek, tuck an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “I thought Bobby was your husband.”

He had trouble remembering that,” she said bitterly.

Bobby hadn’t been able to stay away from women, even after marrying her. She’d been a fool, blinded by love, a mistake she’d never make again. She ducked her head away from his hand.

Then he was an idiot,” he said in his slow drawl.