Christine Wenger.

Not Your Average Cowboy






Youll be perfect, Merry said, turning in her chair to face Buck. I thought that the second I saw you.

He raised an eyebrow, obviously amused. Oh, yeah?

Your blue eyes are killer. And a couple shots of you with your shirt off shoveling hay, well She suddenly realized that shed said too much.

He smiled, knowingly. His blue eyes pinned her with a gaze so intense, she couldnt breathe. So, youve been watching me, Miss Turner?

His voice was throaty. Sexy. A shiver went through her.

Well, not exactly. She tried to look anywhere but at him. I was looking at you from a purely business standpoint.

But you liked what you saw? From a purely business standpoint, that is.

Yes. I mean no.

How did she get into this?

Chris Wenger writes stories that tug at your

heart and make you laugh out loud. New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Carla Neggers

Dear Reader,

I am a native central New Yorker who has never left the area, but my sister moved to Tucson after she graduated from college. After one visit, I fell in love with all things cowboy, cactus and coyotes. Then I discovered rodeo, specifically bull riding. Yee-haw! Now my husband and I follow the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) and the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA). Weve met many of the cowboys, bull fighters and stock contractors and have traveled to many events. These guys (and gals) are salt-of-the-earth types who come from hardworking ranch families. Ive found that they are polite, honorable and truly good role models for their young fans.

Thats why I love to write about cowboys. Theres just something special about them.

So no matter where you live, get your favorite beverage, sit back, put your feet up and let me tell you about a cowboy who lives in Lizard Rock, Arizona, who meets his match in a TV star from Boston.

Cowboy up!

CHRIS WENGER

Not Your Average Cowboy
Christine Wenger


www.millsandboon.co.uk

CHRISTINE WENGER

has worked in the criminal justice field for more years than she cares to remember. She has a masters degree in probation and parole studies and sociology from Fordham University, but the knowledge gained from such studies certainly has not prepared her for what she loves to do mostwrite romance! A native central New Yorker, she enjoys watching professional bull riding and rodeo with her favorite cowboy, her husband, Jim.

Chris would love to hear from readers. She can be reached by mail at P.O. Box 1212, Cicero, NY 13039 or through her Web site at christinewenger.com.

To the memory of my sister, Sue. How I miss you.

To my cowboy brother-in-law, Rick.

Hang in there. To Alex and Katie. Your mother will always be in your heart and mine.

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

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter One

Where on earth am I?

Meredith Bingham Turner pulled her generic gray rental car over to the side of the roadwhat little side there was. Rolling down the window, she peered down the drop-off to her right and frowned at the scruffy vegetation and huge prickly cacti that stood with their arms raised toward the blazing Arizona sun.

It was hot. Very hot. And she was very, very lost.

Once again, she read the directions to the Rattlesnake Ranch that her friend Karen had e-mailed her, but something was still wrong, and there was no one around to ask for assistance. No cops. No pedestrians or joggers. No shoppers. No tourists.

Just lizards, scorpions and tarantulas.

She shuddered and quickly rolled up the window. She hadnt seen any of those creatures yet, but why tempt fate?

Two weeks ago, Karen had called Merry and asked for a favor. I know youre busy, but its important. My brother is at his wits end. With Caitlins psychiatrist bills, Louises and Tys tuition and all Well, we might just lose the ranch if we dont do something drastic. Besides, I read about you and that George fellow in Celebrity Gossiper, and it sounds like you need a break, too.

Karen was right. She needed to get away from Boston and her corporation. She needed to get away from George Lynch, her latest kiss and tell ex-boyfriend. Whenever she thought of the headline in the Celebrity Gossiper: Sensational Cook Not So Sensational in Bed, she wanted to scream.

Merry did the only thing that she could do. She turned it over to her lawyers.

Of course Ill help, Merry had replied to Karens request. What do you need me to do?

Help us turn the Rattlesnake Ranch into a dude ranch. I can take care of the business end, but Ill need decorating help, menu-planning, maybe you could help with publicity. An endorsement by you would guarantee a full house.

Im coming up with ideas already, Merry replied.

She was more than happy to help Karen. Karen had gone out of her way to help Meredith, a lonely introvert from Beacon Hill in Boston, loosen up at Johnson and Wales University. Those four years at J&W with Karen as her roommate had been the best time of her life.

Karen was her only friend in the world. She could trust Karen with her innermost thoughts, feelings and problems and know they wouldnt end up in the Gossiper.

Maybe it wouldnt be too awful here in the desert. All she had to do was to come up with some decorating ideas, lend her name to garner some publicity for the launch of the dude ranch, and then shed fly back home to Boston and her beautiful condo overlooking Boston Harbor.

Karen believed there was a market for wannabe cowboys, especially from the Northeast. Merry supposed that there were some city slickers who wanted to play cowboy for a week and go on trail rides and chuck wagon cookouts, even though it didnt sound like fun to her. Why would they travel all the way to Arizona? Then again, corporations liked that kind of thing for team building. Maybe that was the answerattract the corporate crowd.

Whatever Karen wanted, Merry would roll up her sleeves and do anything she could to help.

Merry studied the map that the auto club had marked out for her and thought that she had to be somewhere on the little gray line between Dead Man Mountain and Galloping Horse Mountain.

Wild West names were just so colorful, but she wasnt in the mood for colorful names. She needed better directions.

She looked out of her rearview mirror. Not a car or a person in sight. Not a soul to ask how to get to Hanging Tree Junctionanother colorful name. It would have been nice if someone had thrown up a sign at frequent intervals, so she would at least know if she was still in the United States and not in Mexico.

Maybe she should just keep going forward. The sun would be setting soon, and she didnt relish driving on twisting and turning mountain roads in the dark.

And then she saw him.

Her first real-life cowboy.

He was moseying, as they say, toward her, riding a big black horse. The cowboy wore a long white duster. Only a bit of faded denim was visible under his brown leather chaps with black fringe. As he rode closer, she saw that he had silver spurs on his boots.

She couldnt take her eyes off him. He looked so rugged, at one with the landscape. So did the rifle butt sticking out of a long leather rectangle hanging from his saddle.

Rifle?

Her mouth went dry and she braced herself, ready to floor the gas pedal.

The cowboy squinted into the sun. She couldnt make out the color of his eyes, but shed bet the next royalty check from her latest cookbook that they were as blue as the sky above.

If she lived to talk about it, shed have Joanne, her new publicist and assistant, hire him for the video shoot advertising Karens dude ranch. Hed be perfect.

He tweaked the front brim of his white cowboy hat in casual cowboy fashion as he approached, and she meltedeven though the air conditioner was on full blast.

His horse stopped at the side of her car and proceeded to wipe its nose on her window.

Thank goodness it was a rental car and not her Jag.

He motioned for her to roll down the gooey window. With her foot poised over the gas pedal, she hit the button with her left hand and opened the window a few inches. She stared up at the cowboy, and wished she could see more of his face. The horse was tall and, so it seemed, was he. She craned her neck, keeping a wary eye on horse and rider.

Howdy, maam. He did the hat-tugging thing again. You lost?

Undoubtedly.

I take it that means yes.

Yes.

Would you be Meredith Something Turner?

She raised an eyebrow. Im Meredith Bingham Turner.

Close enough.

And you are?

He pushed his hat back. Bucklin Floyd Porter. But people call me Buck.

Youre Karens brother! Thank goodness. She recognized him now. She remembered seeing pictures of Buck and Karens other siblings whenever Karen returned to college from visits home. Shed always thought he was handsome, but the pictures didnt do him justiceespecially when he was in full cowboy regalia.

He nodded. And youre the lady whos going to help turn my home into a dude ranch?

She put the window down completely and leaned farther out. Thats me.

He shook his head, not seeming happy at all. If you dont mind, I dont want to stand around talking in this heat. Karen sent me to fetch you.

Fetch? As in dog?

Fetch as in she knew youd get lost. She said youd need road signs every couple of feet.

So much for the strong, silent cowboy. Glad youre here. Lead the way.

She could see his eyes twinkling in amusement. They were blue. Sky-blue, just like she knew theyd be.

You cant follow me, maam. Im headed down there. He pointed at a path through the cacti. Id strongly suggest that you stick to the road.

He turned the big black horse and began to give her directions, pointing and waving his hand down the road. She stuck her head farther out the window to hear what he was saying over the blasting air-conditioning. As she did, his horse swung its tail, stinging her in the face.

Yeow, she yelled, pressing her hand against her burning cheek. She leaned back into the car as the horse pranced beside her.

The beast swung its tail again. This time she was spitting the horses tail hair out of her mouth and brushing it away from her eyes. Her elbow hit the horn.

The horse whinnied, took off at a gallop, leaped the guardrail and plunged down the cliff with Buck Porter hanging on for dear life.

Whoa, Bandit. Easy boy.

Buck pulled on the reins, but not too much. He might as well give Bandit his head and just go with it. The Bandit could handle anything.

Why the hell had the fool woman laid on her horn? Didnt she know that it would spook his horse?

Buck leaned as far back in the saddle as he could. Cactus needles stabbed into his duster and scraped his chaps. During the plunge down the mountain, it didnt take long to figure out that Meredith Something Turner was going to be trouble.

Shes a celebrity chef. Shes on TV and has written several cookbooks, Karen had told him. Shell bring in a lot of good publicity. Besides, shes my best friend, and I havent seen her in a long time. We can do some catching up.

Buck didnt want any part of turning Rattlesnake Ranch into a dude ranch. He liked it just the way it was. Unfortunately, he didnt have much choice. Hed been outvoted by his two sisters and brother, who, along with him, each owned one-fourth of the Rattlesnake, left to them by their parents.

Whoa, Bandit, he yelled, leaning back even more. Easy, big guy.

Finally, Bandit hit level ground and stopped dead in his tracks. Shaking his head, the big black stallion pawed at the ground with a hoof.

Yeah, I know. I know. The city gal probably didnt know any better.

He heard a sound like the wailing of a coyote and looked up. There she was, hanging over the guardrail.

Do you need help? she yelled.

Shed made a megaphone over her mouth with her hands. If he did need help, what would she do? Make blueberry scones?

No, he shouted back.

Are you hurt?

She was scaring every bird, animal and lizard within a fifty-mile radius. Bandit was fidgeting like he was going to jump out of his skin.

Im fine, he yelled. Get in your car and go.

But I dont know where to go.

Go back to Boston, he mumbled, then shouted, Follow the road until the end. Turn left, then right, then your second left. Rattlesnake Ranch will be on the right.

Any of these streets have colorful Western names? You know, something I can remember?

Like Beacon Hill? he said.

Wha-a-at?

No. No names. No one ever bothered naming the dusty paths that ran through Rattlesnake Ranch, least of all him.

Right. Left, left. Then turn right. Or did you say two rights? I should write this down. Right? Stay there until I get a pen and paper from my purse, will you?

Oh, for Petes sake. He had chores to do, and leading a city gal around by the nose wasnt one of them.

A scream cut through the air, startling the buzzards and vultures right out of the trees. Her again.

He released his grip from the saddle horn and catapulted off Bandit. Grabbing his rifle and rope, he ascended the same path hed just ridden down.

Meredith? Hey, Meredith Something Turner, are you okay?

Silence.

Answer me, dammit, he shouted, struggling up the steep incline.

The gravel crumbled under his feet, but he was making progress. Cactus needles stabbed his arms through his duster, through his shirt. Sweat poured down his face as he scrambled higherhigher.

He set the rifle down, shook loose some rope, twirled it over his head several times and let it fly. It hit his targeta post of the guardrail. He tugged to test it and took up the slack. With his rifle tucked under his arm, he climbed up the rope hand over hand as quickly as he could.

Meredith?

Another scream split the air.

In one smooth motion, Buck vaulted over the guardrail, rolled to the ground and took aim.

What the hell?

Two wild burros were eating the contents of Meredith Something Turners purse. Papers and cosmetics were spread out on the road, and the burros were busy grazing on them. She was pressed against her car, wide-eyed as another burro nibbled on the lapel of her pink suit.

He could tell she was ready to let loose another granddaddy of a scream, and he didnt think his ears could take any more.

But she surprised him. Instead of screaming, she croaked out, Dont shoot them. Just get them away from me.

He lowered his head, so she wouldnt see his grin. Securing his rifle, he got up from the ground and took off his hat.

Shoo, he said, waving the air with his hat as he walked across the road. Scat. Go on. Get on. Youre scaring the lady and shes scaring half the state of Arizona.

They eyed him, then trotted off down the road.

Buck turned toward her. What the hells wrong with you? You scared me half to death.

You? You were scared? What about me? She walked over to the mess on the road, picked up a pack of tissues and, after careful inspection, blew her nose into one. What were those things?

Wild burros.

W-why arent they in a zoo?

This isnt Boston, lady.

She sniffed and brushed off her lapels. No kidding.

Bending back down, she picked up her purse and began to toss items in it. My purse has a hoof print on it. They chewed on my cell phone. And they ate my makeup. She stopped to looked at him. There are stores around here, arent there?

Buck didnt think she needed any makeup. In spite of how she irritated him, he had to admit that she was one of the prettiest women hed ever seen. And he didnt know much about fashion, but that pink suit she had on looked expensive. So did her gold jewelry.

Everything about the woman looked expensive.

He sure hoped she didnt expect to be waited on. Karen wasnt feeling well, and he had a ranch to run. In his experience, women who were on Meredith Bingham Turners level were too high-maintenance.

Yeah, we have stores around here. We have a feed store over in Lizard Rock. Oh, and theres a John Deere store in Cactus Flats, too.

She stared up at him with big green eyes, probably trying to figure out if she could get makeup shipped from Boston via overnight mail. Then she glanced down the road at the burros, which had stopped to graze. You will stand guard, wont you? In case they come back.

He choked back a laugh. Yeah, Ill stand guard.

Thank you. She sniffed. But dont shoot them.

No, maam.

She bent over to pick up more items from the road, and he couldnt help noticing how the fabric of her skirt molded against her perfect butt.

Mr. Porter, where is your horse? She stood straight and focused her eyes on his rifle. You didnt have to shoot it, did you?

Lady, I dont shoot everything that moves out here. If I did Id have to carry all my ammo on a packhorse, he snapped, then realized she was dead serious. Shed probably seen too many westerns on TV where animals were put down. Remembering she was from Boston, he softened his voice. Bandits fine. Hes probably back in his stall and eating dinner by now.

Bandit?

My horse.

How are you going to get home?

I thought Id ride with you.

You cowboys ride in cars?

She really was a slicker, unless she was pulling his leg, as hed pulled hers. He couldnt tell.

Ill give it a try.

Speaking of legs, hers were blue-ribbon winners. Her hair was the color of corn silk and probably just as smooth to touch.

What the hell was wrong with him? He was waxing as romantic as a cowboy poet. If he didnt stop himself, he might break into song and start yodeling.

She had to go. She was going to be nothing but trouble. He could feel it right down to his bones.

But one thing he knew for sure, he wasnt going to spend half his born days bailing a tenderfoot like Meredith Turner out of trouble. He had a ranch to run.

Or what was left of it.

Would you like to drive, Mr. Porter? You do know how to drive a car, do you not? She held out a key with a yellow paper tag hanging from it. Her voice held a bit of sarcasm. She was pulling his leg.

He slapped his thigh and added a dumb grin. Gee, shucks, maam. Ya mean I can drive a real car like this? He went over the top with a Texas accent. How about if I drive you back to the airport? This place isnt for you.

She was silent for a dozen heartbeats, and Buck immediately regretted his words. He was being a knothead. If Meredith was as big of a celebrity as Karen said she was, the new Rattlesnake Dude Ranch would be a success.

He supposed he should be happy about the plans for the ranch. It would be the answer to his financial problems, but he just needed more time to come up with the money himself. He had a plan, but the clock was ticking and the bank foreclosure was looming.

His plan was to sell the furniture hed been making. An old Army buddy owned a fancy gallery in Scottsdale and had scheduled a show and sale for him. Whether or not his sale would be a success was a crap-shoot, but he was keeping his fingers crossed.

Meredith met his gaze. Your sister said she needed me. Therefore, I intend on helping her in any way I can. So if you dont want to drive, point me in the right direction and Ill find my own way.

Loyalty. Buck admired that, but he still didnt want a bunch of dudes on the ranch he loved, wandering around, playing cowboy and sleeping and eating inside his parents house. He had Caitlin to think of, too. His daughter had retreated so deep into her own world since her mother left that he just couldnt reach her. A bunch of strangers might make her withdraw even more.

His siblings disagreed, particularly Karen. She felt that Cait needed people around her, especially kids her own age to encourage her to open up more. He reluctantly agreed to give it a try. Hed cut off his arms if itd help his daughter.

He tried to point out that even if the ranch did turn a profit, it wouldnt be that significant. The ranch was in the red almost two hundred thousand bucks, give or take, and the bank said he had to pay that off before he could borrow another penny to diversify into stock contracting for rodeos.

He wished he had the money to buy them all out, but that was spitting in the wind.

He let his eyes skim over the generous curves of his sisters friend. Maybe it wouldnt be all that bad having her at the ranch. If nothing else, she was fun to tease and easy on the eyes. He could use some fun in his life.

Cait seemed to be looking forward to Merediths visit, or at least thats what Karen assumed. Every Tuesday when Merediths cooking show was on, Karen would microwave some popcorn and the two of them would watch it together.

He should be used to Caits silence toward him by now, but he wasnt. He kept hoping that someday shed say somethinganything. He wanted to hear his little girls voice again, to hear her call him Daddy.

Meredith Something Turner tossed him the keys and mumbled a question about whether or not Lizard Rock or Hanging Tree Junction, Arizona had a dry cleaner.

He was willing to bet she wouldnt last a week here before hed be driving her back to the airport and his home would be safe from change.





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