Laredo's Sassy Sweetheartñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” he asked
“I’ve never been kissed like that before,” she said on a gasp.
He smiled. “Then let’s do it again and go for two.”
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “Laredo…I’m not the girl for you.”
And then she ran into the Lonely Hearts Salon.
Not the girl for him? Of course she wasn’t the girl for him. He wasn’t looking for a girl. He was passing through town on his way to Something Big.
But he liked Katy, liked her an awful lot. Wouldn’t want to hurt her.
Katy was right—she wasn’t the woman for him. There would never be a woman for him.
He should never have kissed her….
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tina Leonard loves to laugh, which is one of the many reasons she loves writing for Harlequin American Romance. In another lifetime, Tina thought she’d be single and an East Coast fashion buyer forever. The unexpected happened when Tina met Tim again after many years—she hadn’t seen him since they’d attended school together from first through eighth grade. They married, and now Tina keeps a close eye on her school-age children’s friends! Lisa and Dean keep their mother busy with soccer, gymnastics and horseback riding. They are proud of their mom’s “kissy books” and eagerly help her any way they can. Tina hopes readers will enjoy the love of family she writes about in her books. Recently a reviewer wrote, “Leonard had a wonderful sense of the ridiculous,” which Tina loved so much she wants it for her epitaph. Right now, however, she’s focusing on her wonderful life and writing a lot more romance!
Laredo’s Sassy Sweetheart
Many thanks to my readers! There is never enough I can say to thank you for your support and your generosity. This series is for you. Here also I wish to extend special mention to the following wonderful people: LaJoyce Doran, Shadin Quran, Nicole Christoph, Jeanette Bowman and Beth Reimer.
More than ever, my gratitude goes to the editor angels at Harlequin who watch over my career—thank you to Melissa Jeglinski for your many kindnesses and Stacy Boyd for your calm guidance and patience!
And extra-sloppy, noisy kisses to Lisa and Dean. I adore you and need the light you bring to my life~~Mumzie.
THE JEFFERSON BROTHERS OF MALFUNCTION JUNCTION
Mason (37)—He valiantly keeps the ranch and the family together.
Frisco Joe (36)—Newly married, he lives in Texas wine country with his wife and daughter.
Fannin (35)—Should he pack up and head out to find their long-lost father, Maverick?
Laredo (34), twin to Tex—His one passion: to go east and do Something Big with his life.
Tex (34), twin to Laredo—Determined to prove he’s settled, he cross-pollinates roses, but can’t seem to get them to bloom.
Calhoun (33)—He’s been thinking of hitting the rodeo circuit.
Ranger (32), twin to Archer—No one believes him, but he’s serious about joining the military.
Archer (32), twin to Ranger—He’ll do anything to keep his mind off his brothers’ restlessness—even write poetry to his lady pen pal in Australia.
Crockett (30), twin to Navarro—He’s an artist who loves to paint portraits—of nudes.
Navarro (30), twin to Crockett—He may join Calhoun in the bull-riding game.
Bandera (26)—He spouts poetry like Whitman—and sometimes nonsense.
Last (25)—Never least, he loves to dispense advice, especially to his brothers.
“A man only fights for the good, boys, not to impose his will on others.
Believe in yourself. No one can do that for you. But a real man learns to fight with his brain, not his fists.”
–Maverick Jefferson to his sons when they asked him if they could give Sammy Wickle a black eye in kindergarten.
Laredo Jefferson had seen a lot of madness in the past month. The neighbor the twelve Jefferson brothers had known all their lives, Mimi, had become engaged, a startling situation in itself, since the engagement was to someone other than his big brother, Mason. Mason hadn’t pulled his head out in time to realize he was going to lose someone who mattered a lot to him—or, at least, Laredo was pretty certain Mimi and Mason meant a lot to each other. Sometimes it was hard to tell if all the preening and poppycock was prideful love or just the wear and tear of a brother-sister relationship.
Frisco Joe had married a fine woman, another surprising development, since, of all twelve brothers, Frisco was the darkest horse, being possessed of an ornerier-than-most nature. Amazingly, Annabelle had certainly sugared him up a bit, and baby Emmie kept Frisco in a constant state of cockeyed grinnyness. It had been a pleasure to watch his sour brother get mowed down by a little mama and her no-bigger-than-a-chickpea baby.
But he was not about to be caught in the same net.
After all the years of drought on their ranch near Union Junction, they’d had a veritable shower of charming female visitors. And it was all he could do to resist paying court to every one of them! Nine new women had come to town from Lonely Hearts Station, a neighboring town. After helping out during last month’s terrible storm, the women had decided they would stay.
A lot of bachelors in Union Junction, Texas, had been real happy about that.
Laredo hadn’t asked any of the women out on a date. Fidelity was something to be avoided, at least in his opinion. If you were dying of thirst, and someone offered you a huge jug of water, wouldn’t you drink as long as you could? he’d reasoned to Mason.
Mason had grunted and told him to go fill the water troughs for the horses. Laredo thought the house was going to be plenty empty without Frisco, and plenty full of Mason and his bad temper. Without Frisco Joe, life wouldn’t be the same! Mason had ridden Frisco, Frisco had bucked Mason—without Frisco, Laredo might be next in line to be ridden, and he didn’t have Frisco’s ability to deal with Mason. Laredo’s brothers called him a dreamer, but they usually gave him a pass and picked on his twin, Texas, more, since Tex’s passion was growing roses that never bloomed. Budus-interruptus, Frisco had told Tex, that was his problem. Tex had been really steamed, but Laredo had snickered under his sleeve, his face turned from his twin.
Maybe his brothers were getting on his nerves. Maybe they’d lived together too long. Which got him thinking about traveling east—something he’d been thinking about long before the madness of love had hit the ranch. He was in the mood for adventure, a change of pace. Love wasn’t going to hit him, he vowed, and picked up his packed duffel bag. He was not about to settle down.
He wanted to do something big.
Without another glance back he left the only home he’d ever known to venture out into the warm March morning. First stop: paying a visit to the Lonely Hearts Beauty Salon, just long enough to say hello to some ladies who’d made his life a little more fun last month. There was a place for a troubled man to find a sympathetic ear.
Three hours later he was standing outside the salon, amazed by the hubbub inside—it sounded more like a general meeting place—when suddenly the door flung open. His sleeve firmly grasped in two desperate female hands, he was hauled inside.
He remembered Katy Goodnight, the woman who now had him in her determined grip. He remembered thinking that a man could spend many good nights with a girl like her.
“This is him!” Katy announced to the room at large, which was filled with elderly men, a lot of women and even a pet chicken in a cage on one of the back counters. “This is the man we can enter in the rodeo as the champion for Lonely Hearts Station, Texas. If anyone can ride Bloodthirsty Black, it’s Laredo Jefferson. Ladies and gentlemen, pay homage to your champion, and the man who can whup the daylights out of our rival, the Never Lonely Cut-N-Gurls and their bull, Bad-Ass Blue!”
Voices huzzahed, hands clapped, Katy released his shirt so she could clap, too, and even the chicken uttered a startled squawk. But no one was more startled than Laredo to be picked as some kind of bull-riding savior.
He’d never ridden a bull in his life.
Katy whispered, “You got here just in the nick of time. You’re my hero!”
He swallowed, and decided to keep his mouth shut. After all, he’d been looking for a little adventure—and it wasn’t every day a man got to be a hero to a woman named Goodnight.
KATY KNEW that desperation had just opened the door and sent her a man—a man who looked as if he could solve her problem. Laredo was big enough to hang on to an ornery, few thousand pounds of irritated horns-and-hooves. He was strong, judging by the muscles in his forearms and the biceps not covered by a short-sleeved red T-shirt. That area below the leather belt and covered by nicely fitted blue jeans looked healthy, as well—guaranteed to fit in a saddle and keep a seat well past the eight-second horn.
He was sexy as all get-out, too—a strong chin, square face and simmering dark eyes under a summer-weight western hat set her heart to jumping just like mad Bloodthirsty Black when he shook off lesser handlers. But sex appeal had nothing to do with her mission.
All she needed was a man who could hang on for eight seconds. Was that so much to ask?
Maybe hanging on wasn’t what Laredo wanted—by the look on his face, she’d completely startled him with her announcement—but matters being what they were, she’d have to take the chance that his gentlemanly instincts would overcome his shock.
Their last bull rider had backed out after the Never Lonely Cut-N-Gurls sank their claws into him, filling his ears with stories. Katy had a vague idea what stories might be told in the salon across the street. Remembering her ex-fianc?, Stanley, wrapped around her ex-best friend, Becky, in the bridal changing room in the church, she had an inkling they were bedtime stories.
She eyed Laredo with eyes that missed nothing, and realized that if the Never Lonely girls had set an all-out campaign for the previous rider the Lonely Hearts girls had sent into the arena, Laredo had about a sixty-minute shelf life before he was discovered by the enemy.
And lured away.
Temptation must be avoided at all costs.
Because Miss Delilah, the owner of the Lonely Hearts Salon, really, really needed a champion. Katy’s boss—and rescuer—Delilah, was looking for something big, something miraculous to happen for her salon. It housed the closest thing to real family Katy had ever known. So unless he turned her down, something big and miraculous was what Laredo Jefferson was going to be, Katy determined, staring up at him as he stared down at her, apparently rooted to the floor in his big boots. If she weren’t so desperate, she’d have time to appreciate the scenery, but as it was, time was limited.
Please let him say yes, she prayed, gazing up into those beautiful, stunned eyes.
Or at least don’t let him shrug her off like the crazy woman she knew she must seem to be. She’d never had much luck with men—in fact, her ex-fianc? was right now enjoying her ex-best friend’s thong in the south of France on a honeymoon Katy had planned—but, she wasn’t really frigid. She was certain her heart was warmer than an ice cube, no matter what Stanley said. Being a virgin wasn’t a crime…naivet? was unfortunate, perhaps, but it wasn’t prissy, uncaring virtue she’d been wearing like a steel-plated hymen. It was just…innocence.
Or maybe, she thought suddenly, as she dimly realized Laredo had gorgeous dark-coffee-colored eyes that were dilated and focused on her with a heat matched only by the sun outside, maybe it was uncertainty that had kept her a virgin.
Uncertainty may have frozen her once, but today was a new day, and Laredo was not Stanley. She took a deep breath and forced her best cajoling tone. “So, what do you say, cowboy?” she asked softly.
“Little lady,” he finally said, finding the voice she’d shocked out of him. “We have a problem.”
Her throat dried out. A problem. That didn’t sound like a yes, did it? She could feel all her sister stylists watching them, could feel their breath held as tightly in their chests as hers was. “Problem?”
His eyes softened as he nodded. “Would you care to talk about it, maybe outside?” he asked.
Slowly she released his sleeve, which she’d been clutching since she’d dragged him inside the salon. “All right, Laredo.” She glanced around at everyone in the salon. “I’ll be right back.”
Not towing a hero, maybe, and minus her paltry self-confidence. Not that her self-confidence was the main thing, of course. If Laredo couldn’t be the hero they were looking for, then time was paramount. They’d have to find another hero.
The rodeo was in four days, and someone had to ride their bull. Lord only knew she’d fantasized about riding it herself, to save Delilah from her sister, Marvella, who owned the competing salon across the street. Marvella’s salon had just about finished off Miss Delilah’s honest way of work.
Because, rumor had it, it wasn’t just a close shave being sold across the street by the Never Lonely girls, which left Miss Delilah with very few clients indeed. She’d had to let half her staff go last month. Fortunately, Union Junction had welcomed the nine newcomers. Yet, how cruel of Marvella to deliberately set out to ruin her own sister!
Not yet, Katy told herself, as Laredo closed the salon door behind them. Not if she had anything to do with it.
Outside, the sun shone brightly on the pavement. If it was possible, Laredo looked even more handsome in bright light.
Flirting skills. Enticement. Clearly, she was lacking in some womanly fundamentals, she decided. Because Becky, her ex-best friend, who even now was no doubt having her thong removed by the apparently lusty Stanley Katy had never known, would have roped, tied and thrown Laredo to the ground, all without doing much more than smiling. Rolling her hips. Showing pretty knees beneath her daily miniskirt parade.
Becky would have had a yes out of Laredo before he’d even drawn another breath.
That didn’t mean she was sexless or frigid, Katy assured herself. It just meant she hadn’t ever tried flirting. She didn’t get an F just because she didn’t take the course.
She took a deep breath, marshaled up her best Barbie smile, widened her eyes and sucked in her stomach so her breasts would at least marginally appear through her linen ankle-length dress—a move she was copying straight from the Never Lonely Cut-N-Gurl handbook. Her posture thrown off by the sudden stiffness, Katy placed a hand on Laredo’s forearm for support, which he gallantly covered with his other hand, as if she truly were a doll worth holding! Maybe Becky had been onto something with all that gooey a-man-is-made-to-be-adored stuff. “You were going to tell me about a teensy little ol’ problem, Laredo?” she asked, so sweetly she was certain sugar drizzled out of her mouth. “I’m just positive a man like you never lets a little ol’ bump in the road stop him.”
He nodded, frowning, seemingly flustered by her full-force display of flirt-go-ditz.
“I’ve never ridden a bull,” Laredo said.
THE EXPRESSION on Katy’s face was no longer hero worship, and Laredo felt as if all the air had been let out of him. Bam! Just like that, he was an ordinary mortal again. And here he’d been dreaming of doing something big with his life.
“Never ridden a bull,” Katy murmured, as if she couldn’t believe her ears. “But you live at the Malfunction Junction Ranch. All your brothers bull ride. I saw the ribbons and trophies. There must have been hundreds.”
He shook his head. “Not me, though. Mason figured I was the one most likely to have a wandering foot that’d take to the rodeo lifestyle permanently. It’s one of the very few things I would admit that my brother guessed right about me. And Last never has, either, but that’s because he was the baby and Mason didn’t have time to teach him to ride much of anything except a horse. Actually, Last never really did learn to ride a horse very well.” He realized he was babbling, trying to fill in space so he wouldn’t have to finish letting Katy down.
“Wandering foot?” Katy repeated. “What does that have to do with staying on a bull?”
He ran a gentle finger along the curve of her chin. God, how he hated disappointing her. She really was a cute little thing in her sandals and long dress, just like a girl playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes. He liked the fact that she had little or no makeup on. Her hair was a bit ruffled, which he wouldn’t have expected for someone who worked in a beauty salon. Everything about her seemed somehow fresh and innocent, from her big blue eyes to the dark bangs that framed them. “Mason was determined to keep our family together. It’s a long story, but it has to do with the fact that our father left when most of us were young and Mason got stuck with the details of parenting. He made decisions the best he could. Sometimes he was wrong. But most of the time, he was dead-on.”
“So you’re a restless type.”
She pulled her chin away from his finger. “I wouldn’t know the feeling.”
He eyed her, knowing that she wouldn’t find that adjective attractive in a man. But that was okay, because he wasn’t trying to suit himself up to be attractive to her. “I don’t suspect you would.”
“So you never got to ride a bull?”
“I could have sneaked around. Last wasn’t supposed to, either, but he did just the same. Mason didn’t want the baby of the family busting himself up.”
“Of course not,” she murmured.
“But Last has always done whatever he pleased.”
She glanced up at him. “But you obeyed your brother.”
He shrugged. “I couldn’t quibble with his logic. I didn’t want the family separated myself, and I wouldn’t have been the one to do it. No one else seemed to have a hankering to leave the ranch like I did.”
“You’ve left now,” she said.
Hope flared in her eyes. “Maybe now is the time to disobey Mason about bull riding!”
He laughed. “I don’t have to obey him anymore. But I wouldn’t be any good at riding, Katy. I never learned. And there’s more to it than getting on.”
She looked as if she might cry any second.
“Here,” he said gently, “let’s take a walk. Tell me what’s going on, and maybe I can help you resolve your situation.”
“I need a hero,” she said stubbornly.
He placed a hand dramatically over his chest. “I promise I think better than I ride. Come on. Walk and talk.”
She sighed, not liking his offer one bit, but clearly seeing no way to refuse. “There’s a lot at stake.”
“You don’t look like the kind of girl who hangs around rodeos, Katy.” He eyed her curves underneath her long dress with appreciation. She’d look mighty fine in blue jeans—
“I’m not,” she said as they began to walk side by side. She glanced up, almost catching him eyeing those curves. “Until last week, I’d never even seen a bull up close.”
“What happened last week?” He couldn’t resist asking since her head had drooped, her pretty sable-colored hair swinging forward as she spoke. “Tell Uncle Laredo.”
She shot him a wry look. “You are not my uncle, cowboy.”
“Oh, that’s right. I’m supposed to be the hero. Only I got shot off my horse.”
“Bull, not horse.” She sighed. “Every year Miss Delilah buys a bull from one of the local FFA kids. The kids raise their bulls, usually from the time they were born, until they auction them at the fair. This pays for college and other expenses. Then Delilah enters her bull in certain events, such as riding, and best hoof painting.”
“Hoof painting?” He put out a hand to slow her determined gait. “You act like you’re marching on the enemy yourself. What’s best hoof painting?”
“It’s sort of a paint-your-nails-for-bulls event. Only it’s the hooves that get painted as pretty as they can possibly be. Flowers, doodles, Indian sunsets, you name it. On an animal that won’t stay still. It’s a mental and physical challenge.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“Miss Delilah thought it up.”
“Of course.” It sounded like a beauty salon owner’s idea.
“Don’t sound so snickery. Miss Delilah raises a lot of money for charity with her contests. People come from miles around to enter. And then, when the fair comes to town the following year, she sells the bull to the restaurant in Texas that bids the most for it. By then, everybody’s seen her bull for that year, in several events, and they bid it pretty high. With this money, she’s been able to keep her salon open.” Katy shook her head sadly. “Everyone wins, you know. The student who raised the bull, Lonely Hearts Station charities, a lucky restaurant and Miss Delilah’s favorite charity, taking in women who need a helping hand. But not since the Never Lonely girls opened up their salon.”
She tossed her head in the direction of a business no one could miss—almost the red-light establishment of beauty salons with a neon sign sure to light up a dark sky and all manner of lip prints painted on the windows. “Rivals, huh?”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî