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Hard Case Cowboy

Hard Case Cowboy
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the hero, Redhawk Jackson

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Hard Case Cowboy
Silhouette Intimate Moments (SIM) #1385
ISBN-10: 0373274556
ISBN-13: 978-0373274550
September 2005

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One ranch…two rivals.
One dream…two hearts.

Stubborn Irish beauty Rhiannon O’Brannoch rides into Redhawk Jackson’s life, and he knows everything is destined to change. But he has no idea just how much. As if no money, a failing business, a rash of rustling and a dead body aren’t enough, now he has to contend with the one possibility that can truly break his spirit—losing Irish Heaven ranch, the only home he’s ever known and his one heart’s desire.

One look at her uncle’s sizzlingly sensual, broody ranch foreman has Rhiannon melting in her new pink cowboy boots, but Hawk only wants one thing from her…well, okay, two things… to get her off the ranch as soon as possible, and to get her into his bed. Will she insist on keeping her uncle’s legacy for herself, or will she succumb to temptation and give up everything for love?


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From Chapter One

The middle of nowhere, Arizona

There was a dead cow in the road.

“By the saints,” Rhiannon O’Brannoch muttered as she slammed on her hired car’s brakes before hitting it. Dust from the dirt track billowed around her in a huge, gritty cloud. What on earth…?

Was there no end to the savagery of this country?

Rhiannon gripped the steering wheel tightly and peered out at the strange Arizona landscape all around her. Harsh, desolate, forbidding. And red. The gnarled trees that stood crooked and hunched over like old men were green, but everything else was the color of a flaming sunset. The ground, the mountains, the rocks, were all so red she only now noticed the dark shadow of blood pooling under the dead cow’s side.

“Oh!” she exclaimed aloud. “What’ll it be next? Wild Indians?”

She closed her eyes and wiped a bead of sweat that trickled down her temple. This was a sign. Coming to Arizona had been a colossal mistake.

Last week’s letter from her late father’s long-lost brother had seemed like a Godsend, with its mysterious scrawled message, Rhiannon love, your uncle Fitz needs you, and its one-way ticket to America. It was exactly what she’d needed–a way out. Away from her ex-fiancé Robbie, away from Da’s—her father’s—farm that should have been hers but now belonged to her Aunt Bridget and Uncle Patrick, away from the hurts and betrayals those she loved had dealt her one after the other. Away from Ireland.

She’d thought coming here would give her a new start and help her set aside the pain of the past several years. Help her forget, and forgive.

But now she wondered what she had got herself into.

She opened her eyes. Dust, uncivilized wilderness and dead cows. It was like something out of a bad spaghetti western.

Suddenly, the cow’s tail twitched up.

It was alive!

Should she try to help it? Instinctively crossing herself, she opened the car door and prepared to take her first step onto Irish Heaven, her Uncle Fitz’ primitive, sprawling ranch.

At least she hoped it was Irish Heaven. Lord knew with the crazy directions she’d gotten at that last petrol station and the unholy distances in this country, she could easily have driven clear to Montana and be none the wiser. How this desolate piece of earth could be worth over a million dollars totally escaped her.

She slid out of the car and heat hit her like a foundry furnace. Warily, she inspected the surroundings for snakes, coyotes and mountain lions. One couldn’t be too careful. Something had attacked that cow, and she didn’t intend to be its next victim.

After two steps, her sensible suede pumps were covered in red dust. Good job she hadn’t put on tights this morning.

She hesitated just before reaching the animal. Rhiannon knew about cows. She’d had fifteen Guernseys on the farm back home. But they were milch cows and looked nothing like this massive beast lying on the ground. Did American cows bite?

Then she heard its breath. Coming in short, shallow pants, each puff accompanied by a soft grunt.

“Ah, you poor thing,” she murmured, and knelt by its head. Its eye opened and regarded her in a glazed stupor. “There, now,” she said, and ran her hand lightly over the hide of its neck. It felt stiff and matted. And hot. Very hot.

Its legs and side were covered with long, ugly scratches, oozing blood. Whatever had inflicted these had been vicious. A mountain lion? She glanced around again nervously, imagining every shadow was a predator about to leap out at her.

She shook herself and looked back at the cow. It needed medical attention, and quickly, or it would die. Unfortunately, it was blocking the entire road. To get around it and continue toward the ranch house she’d have to drive off the road’s packed dirt path out onto the soft desert verge.

She’d never driven in this kind of sand before. She’d never even seen this kind of sand before. She could get stuck. Out here in the middle of nowhere with only a dying cow and whatever had attacked it for company. She’d brought no food and there was just one bottle of water left.

The only other alternative was to turn around and drive the approximately thirty-five miles back to the petrol station.

The cow gave a low, exhausted moo, the sound tugging at her heart. She knelt down again and stroked its silky ears. Its mournful eye followed her, as though it knew she could ease its suffering. Making a quick decision, she fetched her last bottle of water from the car and returned to the animal.

“Are you thirsty, then?” she asked, and dribbled a small stream into the side of the cow’s mouth. Its tongue slowly stroked at the liquid.

When the bottle was empty she stood and looked desperately down the ribbon of dirt track, first in one direction, then in the other.

The cow mooed again.

She stood paralyzed with fear and indecision.

What on earth should she do?

“Damn it, not again!”

Redhawk Jackson let out a nasty curse. Blood-matted cowhide clung to the curls of barbed wire dangling from a perimeter fencepost that had been in perfect repair just last week.

The cattle thieves were back.

Redhawk swore again and spurred his horse across the breached fence. This was the third time this year. And it was only July. If the rustling kept up at this rate, Irish Heaven would be bankrupt by Christmas.

With an angry roar he urged Tonopah into a gallop, charging across the high desert dodging piñon pines and sagebrush, heading for the road that led out to the highway.

He would catch these bastards. No way was he going to let thieves too lazy to do an honest day’s work force the ranch under and ruin his future. Not a chance in hell. After a lifetime of losing – his mother, his rodeo career, his health and nearly his sanity – this was one war he was determined to win. Or die trying.

Nothing and nobody was taking Irish Heaven away from him.

He sped over the rocky ground.

Nobody.

How many head had the rustlers gotten this time? Four? Five? They never took more cattle than would fit into the truck they’d have waiting in a secluded section of the road. They were smart. But he was smarter.

Tonopah flew over the last rise before the road. Redhawk couldn’t believe his eyes. A car! Parked in the sand. And someone was still there.

Filled with rage, he spurred his mount down the slope like a madman. This guy was dog meat.

Except it was a woman.

Reddish-blond curls flowed around a shapely figure with long legs standing in the middle of the road. She looked up at him in surprise as he bore down on her at top speed.

That’s when he noticed the steer. Down on the ground and hurt, blood everywhere.

“What the hell are you doing?” he yelled in outrage.

The woman’s mouth dropped open. She stared at him for a split second, then turned and ran for the car.

Oh, no. No way was she getting away.

“Stop!” he yelled.

She ran faster, and stumbled. “No!”

He swooped down on her, grabbed her by the waist and lifted her into the saddle in front of him.

“Let me go!” she screamed, kicking and thrashing in his grip, pounding him with her fists.

“I ought to string you up,” he growled, yanking her hard against his chest as he reined in Tonopah.

Her eyes went wide and she struggled even harder. “Don’t hurt me. Please!”

With difficulty, he hung onto her and turned the horse back toward the injured steer. “Wasn’t it enough to steal my cattle? Now you have to slaughter them, too?”

“I did none of that!” she cried, still squirming. “I was trying to help! I even gave it my last bottle of water! Let me down!”

She sounded funny. Not her voice, but the way she talked.

Like Fitz.

Hawk looked down at her, searching her features for the first time. And got a weird, tingly feeling in his scalp.

He didn’t let her go, but loosened his grip a bit. “Who the hell are you and why are you trespassing on my ranch?”

Her fists stilled and she met his gaze. “Your ranch? Devil take it, I knew I was lost.”

Tonopah stopped next to the steer but Redhawk didn’t move, except to shift a little in the saddle, sliding the woman more firmly onto his thighs and off the uncomfortable saddle horn. “Did you get a look at the rustlers?”

“What rustlers?”

Suddenly, he noticed her hands were splayed on his chest, where a moment ago they’d been beating on him. She was wearing a skirt which had ridden up her thighs, and her short-sleeved blouse had pulled out. His arms were around her, one touching a narrow band of skin at her waist, the other circling her slim shoulders.

He shifted again, uneasily.

“Yeah. Rustlers. If it wasn’t you, who do you think did this?” He jerked his chin at the steer.

Her gaze dropped to it hesitantly, then returned to his. “I–I assumed it was an animal who’d mauled it. A wolf, or mountain lion.”

The way her voice lilted, and how she pronounced “mauled” and “wolf”–definitely Irish.

He had a very bad feeling about this woman.

“You’ve answered none of my questions,” he said, pulling his face into a scowl. She moved and her breast brushed his forearm, scalding it with unwelcome softness. Unwelcome because of who he was beginning to suspect she was. “Who are you, and what ranch are you looking for?” he demanded.

Her eyes, green as juniper against the snow, sought his. In them he saw a growing awareness of their bodies pressed together, and watched her lingering fear turn to a different kind of apprehension.

She tried to back away from him but, perversely, he held her fast. Clinging to his last vestige of power over her.

There was only one person on earth who could come between him and Irish Heaven, and he had a sinking feeling that instead of being safely thousands of miles away in Ireland, for some unknown reason she was right here, sitting in his lap.

He hoped he was scaring the hell out of her. Enough so she’d turn tail and run right back to where she belonged.

“Who are you?” he repeated, and prayed she wouldn’t say—

“Rhiannon O’Brannoch, Fitz O’Brannoch’s niece. And I’m looking for Irish Heaven.”

Redhawk ground his jaw and held Rhiannon O’Brannoch prisoner in his arms as the news sank in. Once more everything he’d worked for was about to be taken from him.

You’d think he’d be used to it by now, but each time it happened, it hit him with the same inevitable force of unfairness. Luckily, this time he had something else to focus on, so it wouldn’t bring him to his knees. Not in front of witnesses, anyway.

Without warning, he swung her from the saddle, holding her up until she got her legs back, then slid off after her, favoring his bum knee.

He grabbed his saddlebag and canteen, and strode to the injured steer. He had to get it together. He had no idea why she was here. It might have nothing to do with wanting the ranch.

“I’m Redhawk Jackson, Fitz’ foreman,” he said without looking at her. “Is your car stuck in the sand?”

In his peripheral vision he saw her glance back at the vehicle and nod. “I tried to get around the cow. To go fetch help.”

“Steer,” he corrected, gratified when she blinked and her cheeks turned pink. He yanked his Stetson down over his eyes and added gruffly, “Sorry I mistook you for a thief.”

She folded her arms under her breasts, watching him pull his medical emergency supplies out of the saddle bag. “Do you always shoot first and ask questions later, Mr. Jackson?” Her tone was noticeably annoyed.

“Always. If someone is trying to steal something that’s mine,” he answered pointedly.

She didn’t even have the grace to look guilty. “What if they’re innocent?” she asked, moving in closer.

He paused in his inspection of the steer’s injuries, doing his best to ignore her bare legs under that skirt. “You think whoever did this was innocent?”

“But why would rustlers harm an animal they’re attempting to steal?”

He shook his head. “I doubt it was deliberate. The steer probably spooked when they tried to load him into the truck, ran into the barbed wire fence and sliced himself up. It happens.”

“And they just left him here to die?”

Redhawk shrugged, pouring disinfectant onto the worst wounds. “No use to them like this. Can’t sell an injured animal.”

“That’s appalling.”

“Yep.”

They fell silent as he worked, which was just fine by him. He needed time to wrap his mind around this unexpected development. He just wished she would take her long legs out of his damn line of vision. The last thing he wanted was to be attracted to the woman who could turn his life upside-down and send him packing from the only real home he’d ever known.

“I need to get the doc,” he announced when he’d done all he could do, and awkwardly rose to stand. He shook the numbness from his knee and whacked the dust off his pants. “This animal needs antibiotics and an IV, hopefully get him on his feet long enough to load him into a truck. He’ll die out here otherwise.”

She nodded and backed away. “Can you phone someone to pull the car out of the ditch for me?”

“Call yourself. You’re coming with me.”

“But–” She looked around and caught sight of Tonopah. “Ah, no,” she said, waving her hands in front of her. “I’ll wait here if it’s all the same to you.”

“Sorry. I don’t leave Fitz’ guests stranded in the desert.” He whistled and Tonopah trotted over. “Climb on. You can even have the saddle.”

She took another step backward. “Thank you, no. I’ll walk.”

He glanced down at her inappropriate footwear. “In those?”

She twirled a high-heeled foot. “They’re sturdy enough.”

“Forget it. You’ll have blisters the size of the Grand Canyon.” His gaze traveled up to her skirt. “You got a pair of jeans in your suitcase?”

“I don’t wear blue jeans,” she said.

So, maybe she wasn’t out for the ranch, after all. You couldn’t own a ranch and not wear denim. Maybe she was only here for a visit.

Yeah, right.

“Guess you’ll just have to hike up your skirt. Ever ride a horse?”

“Not for several years. Mr. Jackson, I really don’t think–”

“Redhawk. Don’t worry, it’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget.” He gave her a long, even look. “You’ve ridden a bike before, haven’t you, Miz O’Brannoch?”

Her lips parted a fraction and she swallowed. Her chin lifted slightly. “Never in the dirt, Mr. Jackson.”

He chuckled and turned to his horse, making sure the cinch was tight. She had spunk, had to give her that. “Dirt’s about all you’ll find around here, so better get used to it. And you should probably call me Redhawk. Considering the circumstances.”

“And what circumstances might those be, Mr. Jackson?”

He smothered a grin at her tone. With her melodic Irish accent, the words sounded more mischievous than prim, though he was sure she was aiming for the latter.

He tipped back his hat and closed the distance so they were standing nose to nose. Well, chin to nose. “Wasn’t too long ago in these parts a man and a woman shared a saddle they had to get married.”

Her nose went up even further. “How quaint. Well, as I have no intention—“

Before she could react he’d swung her onto Tonopah’s back and jumped up behind her. “You were saying?”

She gasped, tugging at her skirt, which was now bunched up around the tops of her thighs. It was no use. That skirt wasn’t going anywhere but further up her hips. And it was a hell of a view.

“Kick off your shoes,” he advised as he slid the toes of his boots into the stirrups and clicked Tonopah into motion.

“They’re my best pair.”

“You’ll lose them,” he warned as he urged the horse into a canter. Sure enough, the left one dropped off when she grabbed for the saddle horn. A huff followed, then the right one flew off as well. “We’ll get them later,” he assured her. “Hang on.”

Tonopah picked up the pace. To Hawk’s surprise, she didn’t fall off. He didn’t even have to steady her. She held the saddle horn, but her back was straight and her knees gripped the horse expertly. Her back didn’t once touch his chest. She obviously remembered a thing or two from a few years ago.

Just as well. Putting hands on her again could prove dangerous. His imagination didn’t need any more fodder to egg it on. Bad enough her long, pretty legs were snugged up against his like sardines in a can. Thank God the saddle had a high back on it to separate the sardines where it mattered most.

“Redhawk,” she said above the clatter of hooves on rocks and gravel. “That’s an Indian name, isn’t it?”

He pursed his lips and reminded himself she was a foreigner. “Yep,” he said, refraining from any of two dozen retorts. With his complexion and facial features, only a blind man could mistake him for anything else.

“What kind?”

“American,” he replied.

She turned to look at him. “No, I meant—“ But his expression must have scared her off. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to pry.”

“Worried I might carry you off to my teepee and scalp you, Miz O’Brannoch?”

There was a pause, then she said, “I’m sure you could come up with something more creative than that, Mr. Jackson.”

There was that prim-mischievous tone again. He couldn’t help but grin. Was it sarcasm…or a challenge?

If she’d been anyone else he might make it his business to find out. He’d been a good stretch without a woman’s company, and though he steadfastly avoided relationships, he didn’t generally avoid an attractive, willing woman.

But despite the clichés, sleeping with the enemy was never a good idea. And she might well be the biggest enemy of his life. Best let it go.

His biceps brushed against her shoulder, setting off a chain-reaction in his body.

Let it go, he told himself.

At least until he found out for sure why she was here.

“Don’t even think about it,” Rhiannon said when she felt Redhawk’s hands circle her waist, preparing to hoist her off the horse like a sack of potatoes. “I am perfectly capable of dismounting by myself.”

His hands dallied on her for a moment, then he said, “All right,” and took them away again. He swung off the horse with practiced ease and stood there watching her with an expectant expression on his face.

His deadly handsome face. Dark eyes, square jaw, largish but nicely shaped nose, wonderfully high cheekbones. All below a classic black cowboy hat that set it off to perfection. It was all she could do not to stare.

His lips quirked. “Well?”

“Turn around then. I’ll not give you more of a show than you already got.”

He grinned. But did as he was told. A nice trait in a man, and all too rare.

“You’ll be sorry,” he said.

Wasn’t she always when it came to men?

She hrumphed and dismounted. “Ouch!” she cried when her bare feet hit the rocky ground. She’d forgotten she had no shoes on.

“Told you,” he said, swept her up into his arms and carried her the dozen yards to the steps of the ranch house porch.

She considered protesting but thought better of it. She was getting rather used to being manhandled by the hulking brute. Not to say she liked it, but it had a sort of…primitive appeal. In a You-Tarzan-Me-Jane kind of way.

He set her down on the smooth stone steps. “Ta,” she said, and glanced up at the front door hoping Uncle Fitz would appear. She didn’t quite know how to handle the unpredictable ranch foreman. One minute he was rude and broody, the next he seemed ready to seduce her.

“You’re welcome,” he said, and preceded her up the steps. He walked with a slight limp.

“Did you hurt your leg?” she asked, following him.

“Old rodeo injury,” he replied curtly, opened the screen door and pushed open the heavy wooden entry door. “Bull riding.”

Her brows lifted. “Not as easy as bicycles, I guess.” She gave him a smile as she went into the house, trying not to think about the type of man who would ride angry bulls for amusement.

He hung his hat on a rack by the door. “You’ve definitely got your uncle’s sense of humor,” he said, heading for the back corner of the room, where a small cluttered desk stood.

“How’s that?” she asked, looking around. The place was enormous. And none too tidy. Large leather furniture was dotted with newspapers, used cups and the odd bits of clothing. Built-in bookshelves were crammed with volumes willy-nilly. The crowded mantle piece was covered in dust.

He picked up the phone on the desk. “A real smart aleck.”

She glanced over at him. She was pretty sure she’d just been insulted. But his expression as he dialed was more one of affection than condemnation.

“Where is my uncle?” she asked, but he raised a finger and spoke for a few minutes with the veterinarian about the steer and arranged to meet him there in half an hour.

“Fitz is probably taking a nap,” Redhawk said after hanging up. ‘Listen…” He put his hands on his hips and regarded her. He looked like he had something to say but wasn’t sure if he should say it. “I know you’ve been exchanging letters with him regularly, so you’ve probably noticed…” His words trailed off.

Alarm flashed through her. “Noticed what? Is he ill?”

She hadn’t seen Uncle Fitz for twenty-four years, not since he’d fled Ireland when she was eight, the day after her Da was thrown in prison. But because of their long letters, she felt close to him despite the distance and the years.

And he was the only family she had left, besides the aunt and uncle who’d taken the farm from her.

If this was bad news, she really didn’t want to hear it. But she forced herself to say, “What’s the matter? Please tell me, Mr. Jackson.”

He pushed a hand through his thick black hair. “Only if you stop calling me Mr. Jackson.”

“Redhawk, then. What’s happened to Uncle Fitz?”

With a sigh he said, “There’s no easy way to tell you, so I’ll just come right out and say it. He’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Rhiannon just stood there staring at him in shock. How was this possible? In his letters Fitz had always been vibrantly alive. She’d loved reading his rambling descriptions of life in America. Arizona had sounded like another planet to her untravelled Irish ears. His adventures, both the good and the bad, had fascinated her, making her own dreary life pale by comparison.

Redhawk walked over and led her to an oversized easy chair, pushed off a couple magazines and urged her into it. “I simply can’t believe it,” was all she could manage.

“I couldn’t either, at first. I thought he was just being forgetful.” He sat on the arm of the sofa across from the chair. “I figured the doctor would prescribe ginseng or something.” He laughed humorlessly. “But he did some kind of psychological test instead and it indicated advancing dementia.”

“When was this?”

“A few months ago. Since then, he’s gone downhill fast. He still has some good days,” Redhawk said, obviously reluctant to complete the thought.

She dropped her head in her hands. The déjà vu felt like a blow to the stomach. So much for starting her life anew. Instead of taking a tentative step forward, if she stayed she’d be taking a huge leap backward. Back to the day her mother announced she had cancer.

That explained the one-way ticket.

Uncle Fitz had always said what a saint Rhiannon was for taking care of her mother all those years. Apparently he was counting on her to take care of him, as well.

She knew it had been a mistake to come. To dare think she could start over.

But this was too much. Just the thought of watching another person she loved suffer, the pain and frustration of being able to do nothing about it… No. She couldn’t go through that again.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson,” she said, standing abruptly. “I have to go.”

“Where?” he asked, surprised.

“Back to Ireland. I shouldn’t have come.”

His jaw dropped and she could swear she saw relief flash through his eyes. “But you just got here. Surely you could stay for a day or two. When’s your return flight?”

“Return flight?” she asked with dawning trepidation. “I don’t have one. He sent me a one-way ticket.”

“He?”

“Uncle Fitz.”

Redhawk jumped to his feet. “Fitz sent you the ticket?”

She nodded. “Yes. With a note saying he needed me. But—“ She swallowed down the guilt and selfishness that rose in her throat. “I’m sorry. I can’t—“

“You mean he paid for it?” Redhawk’s face blanched pale as her own.

“Yes. I certainly couldn’t afford—“

“Do you remember how much it cost?”
She thought his question rude and asking it possibly overstepped the boundaries of a ranch foreman’s job, but he looked so upset she answered. “Eight or nine hundred dollars, I believe.”

His throat made an odd choking noise. “Eight or nine. Hundred.”

“I don’t like to ask, but I’m afraid I’ll need the return fare as well. You see, I don’t—“

He held up a hand, squeezing the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “Trust me, I wish I could. You have no idea. But the thing is…”

“What?” she asked. “What is it?”

He cleared his throat. “If Fitz paid for that ticket he used nearly all of the last of our funds. Unless you’ve got money of your own, I’m afraid you won’t be going anywhere.”

She gazed at him in horror. “That’s not possible. Irish Heaven is worth over a million dollars!”

“On paper, yeah, but not in the bank. I’m sorry, Miz O’Brannoch. We’re dead broke. And it looks like you’re stuck here.”

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