Charlene Sands.

The Heart of a Cowboy






Sarah Felt A Sudden Tightening In Her Abdomen.

She gripped her stomach. Oh, no! she cried out, doubling over.

What? Sarah, whats wrong? Case asked.

The pain intensified. I thinkoh! she exclaimed, the pain gripping her tight. I thinkthe babys coming, she managed to say.

Now? But you have weeks to go.

On instinct, Sarah knew the baby was coming early. And they were out in a desolate part of the range, with no form of communication. The baby wasnt going to wait.

Babies dont always come on schedule, Case.

Case straightened and nodded, a determined light coming into his eyes. Okay, okay. Lets get you into the car. Well make it to the hospital in half an hour.

Sarah shook her head and grabbed on to his sleeve. No, Case. There isnt time. The babys coming too fast.

She met the fear in Cases eyes with her own. There was no way around this. Sarah knew what he had to do. The contractions were intense and coming far too frequently. She pleaded with him now. He was her only hope.

Case, you have to deliver my baby.

Dear Reader,

Get your new year off to a sizzling start by reading six passionate, powerful and provocative new love stories from Silhouette Desire!

Dont miss the exciting launch of DYNASTIES: THE BARONES, the new 12-book continuity series about feuding Italian-American families caught in a web of danger, deceit and desire. Meet Nicholas, the eldest son of Bostons powerful Barone clan, and Gail, the down-to-earth nanny who wins his heart, in The Playboy & Plain Jane (#1483) by USA TODAY bestselling author Leanne Banks.

In Becketts Convenient Bride (#1484), the final story in Dixie Brownings BECKETTS FORTUNE miniseries, a detective offers the protection of his homeand loses his heartto a waitress whose own home is torched after she witnesses a murder. And in The Sheikhs Bidding (#1485) by Kristi Gold, an Arabian prince pays dearly to win back his ex-lover and their son.

Reader favorite Sara Orwig completes her STALLION PASS miniseries with The Rancher, the Baby & the Nanny (#1486), featuring a daredevil cowboy and the shy miss he hires to care for his baby niece. In Quade: The Irresistible One (#1487) by Bronwyn Jameson, sparks fly when two lawyers exchange more than arguments. And great news for all you fans of Harlequin Historicals author Charlene Sandsshes now writing contemporary romances, as well, and debuts in Desire with The Heart of a Cowboy (#1488), a reunion romance that puts an ex-rodeo star at close quarters on a ranch with the pregnant widow hes loved silently for years.

Ring in this new year with all six brand-new love stories from Silhouette Desire.

Enjoy!


Joan Marlow Golan

Senior Editor, Silhouette Desire

The Heart of a Cowboy

Charlene Sands


CHARLENE SANDS

resides in Southern California with her husband, Don, and two children, Jason and Nikki.

When not writing, she enjoys sunny California days, Pacific beaches, sitting down with a good book and, of course, happy endings!

She loves to hear from her readers. Contact her at charlenesands@hotmail.com or visit her Web site at charlenesands.com.

To my husband, Don, my best friend, my love and my own special breed of cowboy. Aint nobody better, honey.

And special thanks to my talented editor, Patience Smith, for your effort in making this book come together.

Its always a pleasure working with you.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Epilogue

One

Case Jarrett pulled his truck up to Red Ridge Ranch and heaved a heavy sigh. He glanced at the ranch house hed grown up in. After months away busting broncs on the rodeo circuit and silently grieving the death of his brother, Reid, he was back now.

Bounding out of the king cab, Case lifted his Stetson off his head to run a hand through his dark hair. Arizona heat coiled around him like a diamondback snake tightening about his body. He welcomed the familiar swamping and took in a deep breath of dust-laden air, then returned his hat to his head.

He had a promise to keep and wondered how Sarah, his brothers widow, would react to his moving back home. Hell, hed debated his decision over and over in his mind and hadnt come up with any other way to protect his family home and keep the promise hed made to Reid on his deathbed.

Case had kept his distance for five monthssince the funeralbut Sarah was eight months pregnant now and Case couldnt justify his staying away any longer. He was needed here. Always had been. Guilt yanked at him hard. If hed been here, seeing to the Triple R, helping out, maybe Reid wouldnt have died so tragically. His brother would still be alive to witness the birth of his first child.

Instead Reid was buried in the family plot five miles up the road. Case had stopped by on his way in, noting the fresh batch of wildflowers on his grave. Sarah, no doubt, had laid down those flowers. When the front screen slapped open, Case snapped his head up. Sarah stood on the front porch, just outside the door and her expression, that momentary sign of hope, slammed into his gut. Disappointment registered quickly on her face when she recognized him. Being an identical twin brother had had its share of benefits at an earlier age, especially where Sarah was concerned, but now, his very appearance was a constant reminder to her of the husband that shed lost. She did a fine job of covering up, but Case knew beyond a doubt that for one instant before reason and reality set in, Sarah thought she was seeing the man she had married.

Take care of Sarah for me, Case, and the baby, too. Reids dying words echoed in his head. Hed made the promise while Reid was drawing his last breath. But Case hadnt stayed on too long after the funeral. Hed headed back to the rodeo straight away.

Sarah was in good hands, hed told himself. Her sister Delaney and her two young daughters had come to spend time on the ranch, keeping Sarah company, helping her cope with her loss and the pregnancy. Case knew shed been taken care of then, but summer was over now and Delaney was gone. Shed taken her children back to California when the new school session began.

A hefty dose of conscience had struck Case while pulling back a pint of Jack Daniels and hed called Sarah from Denver one night. Shed been crying, but darn her stubborn pride, tried her best to disguise it. Sarah Johnston Jarrett couldnt lie worth a damn.

Case knew then, he had to come home. For Sarah and for Reid. The irony was, that for all his good intentions, he now had to come face-to-face with the woman hed been avoiding for the past six years. The woman hed secretly wanted. The only woman in the entire state of Arizona who could make him break out in a sweat with one pretty smile.

Case had his share of beautiful women, but no one compared to Sarah, in his mind. Hed envied his brother but never once begrudged Reid his happiness. Reid deserved every single ounce of joy he could attain. Hed been a good man, solid, dependable, a man Case had been proud to call brother.

If only Case had stayed on at the ranch.

But Case couldnt live under the same roof with Sarah. He couldnt afford for anyone to find out, that Case Jarrett, ladies man and all-around bad boy, had fallen hard for his brothers girl. The day they married, Case took off, leaving the ranch, claiming a need to sow his oats and ride rodeo.

Hello, Case, Sarah said, from just outside the front door. She moved to the porch post and leaned against it. She was heavy with child now and her movements seemed labored. There would be no grand greeting for him, no happy welcome home. He couldnt say he deserved it, either, but often he wished just once, Sarahs eyes would light for him, the way theyd always done for Reid.

Sarah, Case said, nodding and removing his hat.

They stared awkwardly at each other for a moment. Then Case lifted his boot heels and headed her way. Red dust swirled under him as he ate up the yard with long measured strides until he faced Sarah. Her sweet flowery scent knocked his senses for a loop. How the woman always managed to smell so damn good, Case couldnt figure.

What are you doing here? she asked cautiously, checking him over from head to toe. Did you get injured again?

Case had come home from the rodeo circuit once when hed busted his ribs from a fall off a feisty bronc named Dynamite Dan. That and for a few days during each Christmas were the only times Case had ever returned to the ranch.

He shook his head and lifted his arms out wide. Nope. All in one piece this time. She didnt appear relieved. Instead her expression bordered on wary and he knew what question was on her mindwhy had he come home? She wouldnt like his answer. She wouldnt take kindly to his return. And for Case, it wouldnt be easy living under the same roof with Sarah, wanting her the way he did, but an equal measure of guilt and honor had brought him home, for good. Hey, how many babies you have in there? he asked, glancing at her belly. Last time I saw you, you could fit inside the barn door.

That comment brought a soft chuckle to her lips. Sarah was beautiful when she smiled. Hed have to get used to seeing those smiles on a daily basis and not react to them. He couldnt let Sarah know what one of her pretty little smiles did to him. Only one, but he seems to be growing faster than Bobbi Sues baby heifer. She placed her hand over her abdomen.

Case took in her appearance. Her eyes looked weary, the soft blue ovals were rimmed with red. Subtle contours of her lovely face appeared drawn and tight. And although her golden hair shone like sunshine, Sarah looked exhausted. You feeling okay, Sarah?

Im fine.

Youre working too hard, he said, moving a little closer, getting a better look.

Her smile faded some and she took a step back. That was Sarah, always backing off from him, always wary. I need to keep busy, Case, and theres lots of work to do.

Sarah had been working too hard. Well, that was about to change. Case let his brother down once and that mistake might have cost Reid his life. Case wasnt about to neglect his brothers widow or his unborn child. Not again. He wasnt going to let Sarah work herself into the ground, either. He knew she had a stubborn streak. She was one determined lady who didnt back down from trouble.

And there had been trouble. But it hadnt been Sarah who had confided in him. No, he had to find out from Benny Vasquez, the neighbor on their south border, that Sarah had been threatened by pushy land developers to sell out. The woman probably thought she could handle the situation on her own. He hadnt given Sarah much reason to trust him, but damn it, he sure wouldve liked it better if shed been the one to confide in him about what was going on.

Whether Sarah wanted him to stay on or not, hed see to the trouble. Case would bet his championship belt buckle, Sarah wasnt going to be happy about it. Not one bit.

He rubbed the side of his neck and glanced her way. Let me get the trailer unhitched and my bags unpacked and well talk.

Her light blond brows arched up. Your bags?

There was a look of panic on her face with that dawning knowledge. Couldnt be helped. Cases mind was made up. He and Sarah were going to live together at the Triple R, and both were going to have to deal with the consequences. Thats right. Im moving back home, Sarah. To stay.

Sarah fidgeted nervously in the kitchen, strumming her fingers against the oak table and tapping her toe against the floor. She heard Case upstairs; slamming shut drawers, opening the sliding closet doors, whistling out a tune as he made himself at home.

She reminded herself, this was his home, too. He owned half of the Triple R, not that he seemed to care much about it lately. It appeared that the minute she and Reid married, Case was out the door, leaving his family home and his legacy behind. Reid had never complained, he just picked up the slack, but Sarah had often wondered why Case had left so abruptly. She couldnt help but feel shed intruded on his life, barging into his home and taking over.

He said he was hometo stay. Dread crept up her spine. Case was a virtual stranger to her now. Shed hardly spoken to him in six years. She didnt know him anymore. How could she manage to live with Case, in this house, after all that had happened between them in the past? Sarahs stomach churned, a queasy feeling reminiscent of her early pregnancy. Only this time, it wasnt the baby causing commotion to her insides, but instead, the babys uncle.

He was Reids brother and he did own half of the Triple R, but Sarah hadnt given much thought as to what shed do when Case decided to claim his half of the ranch. She certainly hadnt expected him to come home now. She knew he was riding high on the rodeo circuit, having won several bronc-riding championships. Hed been sending money, and that amount had doubled lately from his recent successes, to help with ranch expenses and Reids hospital bills. The ranch was heavily mortgaged to pay those debts and Sarah honestly didnt know how shed manage to pay off the loans. But one thing was certain, she wasnt going to give up on the Triple R.

With Case it was different. Hed seemed to lose interest with the ranch and as soon as he was old enough, hed taken off. His sudden unexpected reappearance had really rattled her.

By law and by rights, her share of the ranch would belong to her child one day. Moving off this land had never been an option. She loved the ranch too much to think of leaving. The Triple R was home. But she never thought shed live here without Reid. Shed never fathomed a freakish accident would claim her husbands life.

The raging dust storm that had spooked the animals and caused the barn collapse had nearly taken Reid, as well. A wooden beam from the rickety barn loft had struck him down as he tried saving the animals. Hed lingered for days, fighting off the crushing pain to his chest and Sarah had been by his side, holding on, listening as Reid uttered words of assurance. There had been silent understanding in his words, and Sarahs heart bled each time Reid would make plans for her future without him. In the quiet moments right before Reids death, hed said point-blank, the Triple R would be her home forever. Sarah had prayed for the best, but feared the worst. And then the worst did happenhis heart gave way. Reid died five days after the accident.

And now Sarah would be living with Case.

She heard footsteps descending on the stairway and stood up abruptly to pour the coffee shed brewed. But the fast move made her light-headed and she swayed, grabbing for the kitchen chair.

Sarah? Case was beside her instantly, steadying her shoulders with strong hands.

The room spun, and Sarah took a deep breath. A moment later, her head cleared. She looked into a set of deep brown, concerned eyes. And her skin burned from the heat of Cases solid hold on her, his fingers gently digging in, reminding her what it felt like to be in a mans arms. Reminding her, what it had been like being in his arms. But Sarah didnt want to dwell on the past. She had enough to deal with, right now, in the present. Im okay. The doctor says not to get up too fast. My blood pressures a bit low and quick moves tend to make me dizzy.

Case helped ease her down into a chair. Sit down and take it easy.

You dont know what youre in for, living with a pregnant woman. She couldnt believe what shed be in for, living with Case, either. They both had some adjusting to do.

Cases eyes never left her face. He sat down across from her. Ive got a feeling Im going to learn about it right quick. So, you dont mind me coming back?

What about the rodeo? she asked abruptly. Of course, she minded, but she had no right tossing him out. He owned an equal share of the ranch.

He studied her face for a moment. Im entered in a handful more events so Ill go back from time to time, but this is my last year. Im through. What do you say, Sarah? Can you abide me coming back to the ranch?

She shrugged. What could she say? She couldnt very well kick him out. Hed left the ranch at a bad time. Money had been tight, beef prices down and they couldnt afford to hire on any more help. Reid had done the work of two men to make ends meet back then, but now, it was Cases turn to work the land, she supposed. Its your home, Case. Reid would want it this way.

Butnot you?

Sarah wouldnt lie. She had her doubts about these living arrangements. He was Reids brother, but he was also a man Sarah couldnt trust. Hed let Reid down too many times. Case, we hardly know each other anymore. At best, itll be awkward.

Sarah, listen. I need to be here right now, but you have my word, Ill stay out of your way. I know about the threats youve received. His tone sobered considerably and his expression grew fierce. His deep dark eyes penetrated hers with raw determination. Nobody threatens a Jarrett.

Case, they werent threats really. Mr. Merriman from the Beckman Corporation got a little tooenthusiastic in his bid to get me to sell the ranch. His company is planning this big housing community called Beckman Bridle Homes and the Triple R seems to be right smack in the middle of where they intend to build.

I heard the McPhersons refused the offer, too. Not too long after their barn burned down suspiciously.

Yes, thats true. It happened last week, but they cant prove anything. Luckily no one was hurt. Seth McPherson spotted the fire and they put it out before any livestock got caught in the flames.

You should have told me about this. I had a right to know. Anger burned low and intense in Cases dark eyes.

I didnt think youd

Care?

Well, its not as though youve taken an interest in the ranch, Case.

The ranch is my business now, Sarah. And you, living all alone out here.

Sarah was alone now. And she felt it every day. Shed been lost when Reid died, and had to fight off her melancholy for the babys sake. Shed never known this kind of loneliness before. Theres more than half a dozen hands on the ranch. Im not entirely alone. Besides, I handled Mr. Merriman in my own way. He probably wont be back.

How can you be sure?

You didnt see the look in his eyes when I pulled out Reids Winchester and aimed it straight at his heart.

Cases lips lifted in a small crooked smile and uncannily, Sarah felt that smile all the way to her toes. You chased him off the property?

She nodded, remembering that day all too well. The man had been more threatening than shed let on to Case. And hed forced himself inside the house, using verbal pressure when shed refused his offer of sale. What was worse, the man knew of the ranchs outstanding debts and that they were headed for financial trouble. He played on that until Sarah couldnt take another minute of it. Shed asked him to leave twice, before reaching for that rifle. You could say that.

Case shook his head. You wont have to worry about him again.

Probably not, she thought wryly, but now shed have another worry. She didnt relish living with a man like Case. Theyd had a history together that she didnt enjoy recalling. Growing up in a small country town, their paths had crossed more times than not. Case hadnt made her life easy. Two years her senior, hed been a bully at times, a tease, and later when theyd been in their late teens, hed played a trick on her. One she still smarted from.

One she had trouble forgetting. And forgiving.

Case Jarrett may have shared similar looks with her late husband Reid, but the differences between the two were clearly notable to her now. Oh, not physically, but Sarah couldnt help but look at Case and see the man who had abandoned Reid and the Triple R when he was needed the most. Sarah saw a man bent on danger. She saw him as the man who had tricked and cajoled her one too many times.

How Sarah had ever been fooled in the past by their identical appearance, she couldnt understand now. And the scar slanting down Cases cheek from his right eye only marked him as different to othersa way of singling him out from Reid. But to Sarah, Case was nothing like Reid, and she didnt need that facial wound to remind her that Case Jarrett was certainly not his brother.

Is that why youre back, Case? Are you worried about the ranch?

Case narrowed his eyes and drew in a long breath, deep in thought. Its my responsibility now, Sarah.

She nodded, wondering why, after all this time Case felt the need to own up to his responsibilities. Hed never been the type to settle down. And if his coming back had anything to do with her, she needed to make one thing abundantly clear. But Im not.

Youre not what? he asked, the picture of innocence.

Your responsibility. I can take care of myself.

Case had the good sense to stifle a smug smile, but Sarah sensed she knew what hed been thinking. Shed nearly fainted dead away just now from dizziness. And hed been the one to catch her before the fall. Tough pregnant lady, are you?





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