The Cowboy And The Countess
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“Come with me, Anna,” he beckoned.
“There’s no cowboy named K.C. There’s no Countess. There’s only Kent Coleman Landover, and he most definitely isn’t in love with a cleaning lady. You don’t remember now, but one day, you will.”
He grasped her arms. “There is a lot I don’t remember. I don’t remember how I made all this money or why I built a big white box of a house or why I spent my days behind a desk in a room where the windows don’t open. They tell me I did all of that, and at this point, I’ve got to believe them, because I don’t remember anything…except for one thing.”
He reached for a stray strand of her hair, lifting it gently. “I remember you, Anna. You and me.”
Spring is coming with all its wonderful scents and colors, and here at Mills & Boon American Romance we’ve got a wonderful bouquet of romances to please your every whim!
Few women can refuse a good bargain, but what about a sexy rancher who needs a little help around the house? Wait till you hear the deal Megan Ford offers Rick Astin in Judy Christenberry’s The Great Texas Wedding Bargain, the continuation of her beloved miniseries TOTS FOR TEXANS!
Spring is a time for new life, and no one blossoms more beautifully than a woman who’s WITH CHILD…. In That’s Our Baby!, the first book in this heartwarming new series, Pamela Browning travels to glorious Alaska to tell the story of an expectant mother and the secret father of her child.
Then we have two eligible bachelors whose fancies turn not lightly, but rather unexpectedly, to thoughts of love. Don’t miss The Cowboy and the Countess, Darlene Scalera’s tender story about a millionaire who has no time for love until a bump on the head brings his childhood sweetheart back into his life. And in Rita Herron’s His-and-Hers Twins, single dad Zeke Blalock is showered with wife candidates when his little girls advertise for a mother…but only one special woman will do!
So this March, don’t forget to stop and smell the roses—and enjoy all four of our wonderful Mills & Boon American Romance titles!
Associate Senior Editor
The Cowboy and the Countess
To my children, J.J. and Ariana. You are my heart.
Special thanks to Gail Fiorini-Jenner, teacher, writer and cattle rancher, for her generosity and patience with a tenderfoot.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
DARLENE SCALERA is a native New Yorker who graduated magna cum laude from Syracuse University with a degree in public communications. She worked in a variety of fields, including telecommunications and public relations, before devoting herself full-time to romance fiction writing. She was instrumental in forming the Saratoga, New York, chapter of Romance Writers of America and is a frequent speaker on romance writing at local schools, libraries, writing groups and women’s organizations.She currently lives happily ever after in upstate New York with her husband, Jim, and their two children, J.J. and Ariana. You can write to Darlene at P.O. Box 217, Niverville, NY 12130.
Books by Darlene Scalera
MILLS & BOON AMERICAN ROMANCE
762—A MAN FOR MEGAN
807—MAN IN A MILLION
819—THE COWBOY AND THE COUNTESS
“If he’s a cowboy, then I’m a kielbasa,” the man declared.
“Kielbasa.” The word felt full, fun on K.C.’s tongue, and he smiled. To the man at the foot of his bed, he asked, “You’re a foreigner, then?”
The man looked down the length of the bed. He was squat and fierce. His cheeks were red as if burned by a fast razor, and he spoke in spasms broken by greedy gulps of air. But when K.C. looked him in the eyes, he felt the familiarity of an old friend. He liked this man.
The man attempted a smile. The effort only diminished some of the slack in his razor-scraped cheeks. “I’m not a foreigner, and you’re not a cowboy. Your name is Kent—”
“You know your name?” Now the man smiled, his neck bulging above his shirt collar. A red dot rose on the expanded flesh, a lone pimple beheaded. Another victim of the wounding razor.
“Yessir, I know my own name.”
The man glanced at the white-coated trio behind him. He looked back at K.C., his eyes rich velvet triumph.
“But everyone calls me K.C.”
The man’s eyes dulled.
“Now I understand your confusion about the cowboyin’. Tethered to this bed, trussed up in this get-up—” K.C. plucked at the faded front of the gown “—I hardly look like a man who can brand several hundred calves in a day and birth a few more in the night, if need be. But believe me, in here—” he flattened a palm across his chest “—there beats the heart of one of the last true wranglers.”
The man looked at him, his expression glazed. He muttered several profanities. “Listen to me, you’re no cowboy. You’re the founder, the CEO of Landover Technology. Generation X’s golden boy. The digital era’s David. The youngest head honcho of a company ever to earn a Fortune 500 ranking. Cowboy?” The man’s fleshy cheeks jiggled as he spoke. “Cowboy?”
One of the white-coated trio stepped forward and touched the fat-faced man’s elbow.
The man turned. “You know he’s Kent Landover.” His voice ballooned; his body seemed to expand. He looked at the other two men in white. “You know he’s Kent Landover.”
The white coats were doctors, K.C. decided. The one now murmuring to the florid man had fine lines around the mouth and eyes that spoke of too many deaths and too few miracles. He held a chart in one hand and, with the other, steered the sputtering man toward the hall.
“I’m telling you, the man lying there is the same man named 1994 Man of the Year by PC Magazine. CEO of the Year by Financial World in 1996. We land this deal with Sushima Components, and that man in there will be on the cover and in the headlines of every business publication in the world. Three-fourths of the civilized world knows he’s Kent Landover. Everyone…” The man halted at the door. His flushed face turned to K.C. Their gazes caught and held. “Everyone except him.”
The doctor ushered the man into the hallway.
“Is he going to be okay?” K.C. asked.
One of the other doctors looked up from the bag of yellow fluid attached by a slim hose to K.C.’s arm. He smiled with already-perfected reassurance. “He’ll be fine. You rest now. We’ll be right back.”
The doctors left, closing the door halfway. K.C. looked out the wide room window, seeing a slice of gauzy sky wedged between too many buildings. He heard the spurt and crackle of the short man’s voice outside the door. That’s what comes from living too close to concrete for too long, he thought.
He laid his head back against the propped pillow and closed his eyes. He saw the mountains in the bleached light of a high noon sun. He missed home. He missed Anna.
The door swung open. The man, his neck no longer inflated and now almost too thin for his large jaw, came back into the room. He smiled at K.C., but his features kept a nauseous cast.
Behind the man came a woman, her head held erect, her beauty carried like a brocaded mantle. She smiled full, colored lips at him. He nodded, courteous, curious. She was handsome, and he was intrigued but not drawn. Her beauty was too hallowed. Where was Anna?
The woman came to his bedside, her smile serene. She leaned over and touched her smooth cheek to his forehead. His brow furrowed against her glassy flesh. His skin felt tender, bruised.
“Oh, my darling.” It was between a song and a sigh. The sweep of the woman’s hair fell in a dark curve, curtaining K.C.’s vision so he only saw the lower half of the short man’s face. The man’s lips were pursed, triangling his jaw.
The woman straightened. The white-coated chorus of doctors had returned and was watching. The woman’s hand lay against his cheek. “You remember me, don’t you, darling?”
He looked up into bottle-green eyes, their whites iridescent with expectation. “Are you a friend of Anna’s?”
The woman’s touch tensed against his face. Her eyes deepened to emerald. With a slow, elegant twist of her neck, she turned to the short man at the end of the bed. “Who’s Anna?”
The man shrugged. “All he told me was he’s a cowboy named K.C.”
The woman’s head swiveled. She looked down at him. “K.C.?”
Her hand made small strokes against his cheek. She was gimlet-eyed. Her teeth were tiny and glistening. “Who’s Anna?”
“The woman I love.”
Her hand stilled. He watched the muscles in her slim throat ripple.
“The woman you love?”
He nodded. “I’m going to marry her…if she’ll have me.”
The woman’s smile came back less full. Her hand stroked his cheek once. “Why would she say no to you?”
“She’s a countess.”
“A countess?” There was a quiver in her well-modulated tone.
“And I’m an ol’ cowpuncher.”
“An ol’ cowpuncher named K.C.,” the woman repeated. She stared at him. Her smile spread soft, indulgent.
“Your name isn’t Kent Landover?”
“In fact, ma’am, it is.”
“It is?” The woman threw a glance at the man at the end of the bed.
“That’s my given name—Kent Coleman Landover.” He winked at the woman, pleased she looked less upset, almost happy. “K.C., for short.”
The woman’s smile vanished. She straightened.
“He’s only been awake for a brief time,” advised the doctor holding the chart. “Any family?”
“His parents divorced when Kent was in high school. Father passed away about five years ago—heart attack,” the short man said.
“His mother is on her third or fourth marriage. I’ve lost count. She lives somewhere abroad—Denmark, Sweden, Norway,” the woman said. “One of those Scandinavian countries. She sends fabulous Icelandic sweaters at Christmas.”
“No brothers or sisters?”
The man and woman both shook their heads. “Only child,” the woman said.
“I knew three boys grew up on the Ponderosa Ranch in Nevada. One father, three different mothers.” K.C. rolled his eyes. The others stared at him.
He sat up. There was soreness when he moved, as if he’d sat too long in a cheap saddle. “I realize I must have been off my feed, doc, but I’m feeling spry now and ready to move on.”
From the corner of his eye K.C. saw the woman mouthing “off my feed.”
“When do you think I can move ’em up and head ’em out?”
“Move ’em up and head ’em out,” the woman’s lips formed.
The doctor came to the side of the bed. “How many fingers am I holding up, Kent?”
“Call me K.C. Everyone does.”
The doctor nodded. “Okay. How many fingers am I holding up, K.C.?”
K.C. smiled. “Three.”
The doctor touched his forehead. “Any headaches, dizziness, nausea?”
He shook his head.
The doctor pulled down the lower lid of his right eye, then his left. “Any double vision?”
“Nope. I’m ready to saddle up and be on my way.”
The doctor laid his fingertips against the inside of K.C.’s wrist. “Where would you be heading?”
K.C. looked to the window and the smog-shrouded cityscape. “I’m here to find Anna.”
“She lives here in L.A.?” The doctor lifted K.C.’s arm, bent it up and down at the elbow.
K.C. nodded. “Somewhere in one of those big mansions. Bel Air or Brentwood or the Hills. She’s a countess.”
“So you mentioned,” the doctor said. “And you’re here to find her?”
K.C. nodded once more.
“To ask her to marry you?”
K.C. looked around the room, at the strange faces he didn’t know. Still, he could see what they were thinking. “You all think I couldn’t drive nails in a snowbank, don’t you?”
Blank faces looked at him.
“It’s okay if you think the fodder isn’t full in the silo. It’s nothing I haven’t thought of myself. I mean, why would someone who has everything—fine looks, intelligence, wealth, breeding, not to mention the pick of the crop—marry someone the likes of me? You’re right. I’m crazy. Crazy in love with Anna. And crazy people do crazy things. So here I am, in La-La Land, to find her, to ask her to be my wife…and make me the happiest guy alive.”
The woman moved back from the bed.
“I know this might not make much sense to you all—”
A choking sound came from the woman.
“But if you’ll unhook me here—” he nodded toward the tube attached to his arm “—and pronounce me fine and dandy, I’ll thank you for your fine care and hospitality and be on my way.” He started to shift his weight off the bed.
The doctor laid a hand on his arm. “K.C., do you remember having an auto accident this morning?”
He looked at the doctor, then up at the circle of faces again. He leaned back, smiling with relief. “Is that why you all look so worried? Here I am, spouting away like a hot spring.” He started to sit up once more. “Again, I’ll thank you for your concern and care, but besides feeling as if a bronc got the better of me, I’m fine.” He pushed back the sheet.
Again the doctor’s hand pressed on his forearm. “K.C.—”
“Kent. Kent. His name is Kent.” The woman’s voice split the air.
K.C. looked at her anguished face. “Ma’am, I don’t mean to—”
“I’m not your ‘ma’am.’ Good God.” She came to the bed, grasped his hands. “I’m your fianc?.”
He pulled back from her imploring gaze. “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but—”
“Kent,” the doctor interceded, “this morning you lost control of your vehicle and ended up in an embankment off I-5. Fortunately, your air bag engaged, and you suffered a few bruises and a concussion. However, a blow to the head often results in a loss of memory, a blocking out of critical personal information.”
“What’re you saying, Doc?”
“You’ve got amnesia.”
“Most cases last only a few days or, at the most, a few weeks. The rate of recovery is often quite amazing during the first six months after the head trauma. Often the brain just needs time to recover from the impact. Impairments could begin to disappear within days. I’d like to schedule a few more tests, but preliminary indications suggest you can expect a full recovery.”
K.C. looked up at the white marble woman, the full-faced short man. He looked back at the doctor. “No one else was hurt, were they?”
“No.” The doctor allayed his fear. “According to the report, you were following too close behind a bus and when it braked to take the ramp, you steered right to avoid hitting it, lost control and went over the side.”
“You rolled the Range Rover good a few times,” the short man noted.
K.C. looked at him, studying him. “You’re…?”
“I’m your business partner, Leon Skow.”
Leon chuckled, his soft cheeks shaking. “We’re not exactly even-Steven, but I’ve been with you since you started beefing up surplus PCs and selling them from your dorm room.”
“And I’m your fianc?, darling,” the woman said.
He looked her way.
“Hilary Fairchild.” She brushed a hand across his arm. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you, and we’ll get you better in no time. After all, the wedding is less than a month away.”
K.C. studied the woman’s beautiful face. He saw a stranger. He looked to the man. Nothing.
Business partner, fianc?, beefed-up PCs, wedding?
“I’m sorry, but there’s been a mistake. You must have me confused with another Kent Landover.”
The man chuckled again. “Believe me, there’s only one Kent Landover.”
K.C. looked to the doctor for an explanation. The doctor watched him, said nothing.
K.C. said, “Where’s Anna?”
The doctor looked at the short man, the beautiful woman.
“Darling.” The woman stroked his hair, but her voice was sharp. “There’s no Anna.”
K.C. pulled away from her touch. He grasped the doctor’s arm. “What’s happened to Anna?”
The doctor looked down at the hand too tight on his wrist. “Was Anna in the Range Rover with you at the time of the accident?”
“No, she was on the bus.”
“On the bus?” Hilary questioned.
“She was wearing her crown.”
He didn’t hear the rest. Instead, he saw Anna as he’d seen her then. First it’d been a glimpse, so fast he wasn’t sure. He’d accelerated. She’d come back into focus. The tilted tiara, the wide-set eyes, the crooked grin that made him feel good just looking at it.
How long had it been since he’d last seen her? A lifetime.
Lying there in the hospital bed, he remembered—he’d been driving on the freeway, and he’d seen Anna bigger than life on a passing bus. He’d followed the bus, memory welling into emotion. Happiness, for a few short seconds, was his once more. His life contracted to a square no larger than the narrow panel of a bus’s backside. He’d seen the lights come on beneath the square, warming to red, guiding him like a beacon in a storm.
Then there’d been nothing…darkness deepening, becoming complete. Yet he hadn’t been afraid. There was peace, a long, deep sigh such as he might have imagined. There was silence all around. Nothing except for his own cry, his own call.
Don’t leave me, Anna.
“I saw Anna,” he told the faces curved above him.
“When did you see her?” the doctor asked.
“Right before the accident.”
“You remember this?”
“Do you remember anything else?”
The doctor glanced at the others. “Nothing?” K.C. laid his head back against the pillows. He closed his eyes.
“I remember only Anna.”
HE MUST HAVE SLEPT, because when he woke it was dark, and he was alone except for the sounds of the hospital coming from the hall. The tube that had led into his arm had been removed. An untouched tray of green Jell-O, ginger ale and a covered plastic coffee cup sat on the thin table beside his bed. He sat up slowly. He was stiffer than the day after the Laramie River Rodeo when Big, Bad Blue had bucked him high, and he’d landed low.
He slid his legs over the side of the bed and stood, then sat down as a wave of dizziness curled his knees.
“Shoot.” He shook his head to clear it, scolded himself with a rueful smile. “That’s what you get for taking off your boots for too long.”
He made his way to the bathroom. The face that stared back at him would’ve been more familiar with a Stetson pulled low along the brow. He had a purplish bruise on his right cheek tender to the touch, dark circles under his eyes and a swollen shape to his brow. His blond curly hair had been cut much too short. He wondered when that had happened. Had it been necessary to treat his head injury? Didn’t matter, he thought, stepping back from the mirror and going to the bed. Soon enough it’d grow back. The important part was he was alive and in L.A., and so was Anna.
He sat on the edge of the bed, poured a glass of water from the plastic pitcher on the table and took a sip. He grimaced. City water. How did Anna stand it here?
He set the cup down and pushed the table away. Leaning back on the pillows, he looked at the lights of the city, thinking. People had been here earlier—nodding doctors, a pug dog of a man, a T-bone of a woman. They’d confused him with another Kent Landover who owned some big company and was engaged to marry the lady. He stretched and folded his arms behind his head, wincing as his muscles protested. He hoped they got everything straightened out, because he didn’t intend to lie around here as useless as a .22 shell in a 12-gauge shotgun. He had plans.
Wide awake, he looked around the room. He could take a walk down the hall, but then one of those nurses would be in here, prodding and poking him again. There was only one lady he wanted prodding and poking him, and tomorrow he was going to find her and pledge her his heart.
His gaze landed on the small television set angled above him. He picked up the remote control on the nightstand and pressed On, muting it as the television came to life. He didn’t want to alert the nurses. He flipped through the channels, stopping at an old John Wayne movie—Red River, one of his favorites. He’d seen it well over a hundred times. He leaned back against the pillows, smiling as he mouthed the dialogue.
The film broke for commercials. He was stretched out and smiling. He had John Wayne tonight. Tomorrow he’d have Anna. He was a happy man.
An ad came on for A Little Bit of Seoul on Olympic Boulevard—the best in Korean barbecue. The next commercial promised you could learn to sell real estate in your spare time. Then a woman was on the screen, tap-dancing, singing. She moved her head. The light caught the gems in her crown.
K.C. sat upright. He rose, and on his knees, crossed the bed until he was below the television set. His hand reached up slowly, shaking, as if to touch a dream. He placed it full-palm on the screen. The crowned woman did a high kick.
“Anna,” he whispered.
“ANNA,” MAUREEN DELANEY cried as her daughter came in the back door. Breathing heavily, Anna stopped in the doorway. Maureen took a step back.
Ronnie, sitting behind the faux walnut desk, clapped her hands to rouged cheeks. “Chickie-boom-boom, was there a rumble at Sushi Boy?”
Ignoring them both, Anna moved to the middle of the room and was about to collapse into one of the chairs angled before Ronnie’s desk.
“No!” her mother cried.
Anna poised midcrouch.
“Not the crushed velour.”
“Oh, doll.” Ronnie’s hand fanned the air. “I’m penciling you in for a steam cleaning at eleven.”
Striking a wide stance, Anna exhaled a breath of exasperation. Her bangs lifted, and the wisps of hairs fallen from her hasty topknot stirred.
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