Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Every Breath She Takes by Norah Wilson Excerpt

Every Breath She Takes by Norah Wilson

Chapter One

“Smile, Boss. Here comes another bus load of wranglers.”

Cal Taggart scowled at his foreman, Jim Mallory. “Would-be-wranglers, you mean. Cripes, I wish there was another way outta this mess. I’m not cut out for this, Jim.”

“It’s not such a bad bargain, I don’t reckon, long as you can hang on to the ranch. Whatever it takes, right?”

Cal grimaced as Jim threw his own words back at him. “Right.” Whatever it takes. That was his credo, sure enough. Whatever it took to amass thousands of acres of prime ranch land. Whatever it took to secure the best breeding stock. And now, whatever it took to keep the whole damned shooting match from falling into the clutches of the bank.

“Whatever it took” these days meant throwing his back into making this guest ranch a success. He’d been open to the public for four months now, and bookings were getting better each week. If he could just get it to take off, the profits would help his cattle ranch through this downturn.

Downturn, hell. His eyebrows drew together in a fierce frown. He’d had the worst run of misfortune of his life this summer. A grassfire in June claimed three head, although in truth he counted himself lucky. It might have destroyed his entire herd if it hadn’t been caught it in time. Then what must have been lightning strikes claimed a few more cattle.

But in the scheme of things, those were just aggravations. The real problem was that farm incomes had hit their lowest point since the Depression. Foreign subsidies, low commodity prices, you name it. Which is why he was stuck playing to the tourists.

As the two men pondered the price of survival, the first of the passengers clambered off the bus.

“I’ll handle this, Boss.” With a grunt, Jim pushed his arthritic frame off the fence.

“Stay put, Jimbo. I’ll see to it.” Cal tugged the brim of his hat down and strode across the drought-scorched grass toward the bus. Jim was the best wrangler he’d ever ridden with. Asking him to babysit tenderfooted adventure-seekers on tame trail rides was bad enough. He’d not see his friend reduced to smiling greeter.

No, that distinction he reserved for himself.


Dust rose up from her sandals as Lauren stepped off the bus into the punishing August sun. The black sun dress she’d thought so perfect for traveling sucked up the sun’s heat. Her hands came up to shade her eyes despite the sunglasses she wore. She was definitely going to need headwear. Back home in Nova Scotia, she’d have worn a sun hat to protect her fair skin, but she’d purposely left it behind. Nothing short of a Stetson was likely to cut it here.

She glanced at the man making his way down the line, greeting guests. Now, there was a working hat. Battered and dusty, it looked custom-molded for its tall, lean owner.

Except he didn’t really look much like a cowboy, she realized. Shave off a few years, lose the hat, and she could picture him in a leather jacket, cigarette dangling James Dean-like from his mouth. Or maybe astride a motorcycle.

She focused on his face. All planes and angles, it looked like it might have been carved from the rock that rose in the distance. What would it feel like under her palm? The thought came out of nowhere, as did the answer. Hard, warm, mobile.

She reined in those thoughts as soon as they registered, reminding herself that for all she knew, this man might be the killer. But as he moved closer, she found herself analyzing his gait and trying to put herself inside his head looking out. No, she decided. He didn’t have enough swaggering roll to his walk. His movements were more economical. Graceful, almost.

Suddenly he was there, offering his hand. “Welcome to Foothills, ma’am. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

“Thank you.” As his big hand enfolded hers, she noticed his eyes. Sensual, hooded, they gleamed a silvery gray, like her beloved Atlantic Ocean under overcast skies.

They also gleamed with something else, she realized with another small jolt. Masculine interest.

Suddenly, she wished for her lab coat and trousers. The professional costume usually precluded this kind of thing. Not that she minded male appreciation. But from this cowboy, it made her unaccountably nervous. Maybe because she felt an answering twinge, a twinge she couldn’t afford to indulge. She hadn’t crossed a continent to flirt with a cowboy. She had one purpose here, and one only.

Turning toward the growing mountain of luggage, she dragged her duffel bag and suitcase from the pile. A hand closed over hers on the duffel bag’s handle.

“Let me help you with that.”

Damn. The gravel-voiced cowboy. “I can manage, thank you.”

“Allow me. You’re really not dressed for it.”

“I’ve got it, thanks.”

At her tone, he released his grasp. “Ma’am.” He tipped his hat, the barest suggestion of amusement flickering in those gray eyes. Then he was gone, helping a family of five drag their luggage from the pile.

Check in, handled by a capable middle-aged woman, went smoothly. Another employee, a quite dazzlingly handsome young man of maybe nineteen or twenty who introduced himself as Seth, showed her to her cabin. It was a fair distance from the lodge, and he insisted on carrying both the duffel bag and suitcase. Not wanting to puncture his youthful machismo, she allowed it. It also gave her the opportunity to study his gait. Burdened as he was, it was hard to judge, but he definitely had some swagger to him. Particularly after he noticed her checking him out. As if! He was just a kid.

But even kids could kill.

En route, they encountered the cowboy, who looked pointedly from Lauren’s empty hands to the overburdened young Seth. Oh, man! After she’d turned down his help only to accept it from this pretty youth, he no doubt concluded she preyed on teenage boys. Well, that was his problem. He could think what he liked. Refusing to blush, she smiled and offered him a what-can-you-do shrug.

A moment later, her young escort left her at her cabin. Putting the disturbing cowboy out of her mind, she explored her new living space. It was tiny, nothing more than a small kitchenette, a single bedroom and a tiny bathroom. The bath, she noted with relief, was modern. Equally pleasing was the sunny bedroom, its double bed draped with a hand-sewn quilt. On a scarred dresser, a bouquet of wildflowers trembled in the breeze from the open window. She fingered the blooms, inhaling their sweet scent. Prairie mallow and some fragrant purple thing.

Lauren crossed to the bed and stretched out on it, testing the firmness of the mattress. Exhaustion tugged at her. She’d love to pull the colorful coverlet over her shoulders, but she couldn’t. If she succumbed to sleep now, she’d be dead to the world until tomorrow, and that was unacceptable. She had a job to do.

On the way over, she’d pumped young Seth for information about how best to meet other folks. He’d suggested she take all her meals in the ranch house’s dining room rather than getting the kitchen to stock the cottage with food. Sooner or later, all the guests turned up there, he’d said.

Okay, the ranch house it was. Groaning, she rolled off the bed and hit the shower.

When she walked into the dining room an hour later, she was among the first of the diners. She picked a table by the window which would allow her to keep an eye on the comings and goings both inside the dining room and outside the house.

Dinner was buffet style. The dueling aromas of beef and fresh baked bread tantalizing her, she strolled over to the big table. She could only gape at the volume and variety of food. Hip of beef, baked potato, molasses baked beans, garden salads…. After six or seven dishes, she stopped counting. And carving the beef, a white chef’s hat on her head, was the same round-faced woman who’d handled the registrations.

“You sure get around,” Lauren said.

The other woman smiled. “‘Round here, nobody has just one job.”

“And what are yours?”

“Registration desk, cook, and housekeeper.” She poked the beef with the tines of her fork. “How do you take your beef?”

“Medium.” Lauren’s mouth watered. “It looks wonderful.”

“It is wonderful.”

At the masculine voice, she turned to find the cowboy, minus his hat and with plate in hand.

“It’s our specialty,” he said, as the cook handed Lauren back her plate, which now bore a sizeable hunk of meat. “Rolled and aged before being cooked in a big ol’ barbecue oven. Nobody does it like Delia.” He winked at the cook.

“Go ‘way with you.” The older woman blushed to the roots of her red hair.

He grinned at Delia. “Not without some of that beef.”

Lauren almost dropped her plate. He’d smiled when he greeted the tour group, but it hadn’t changed his face like this. Good thing. She might have melted into an embarrassing puddle.

“I’ve got just the piece for you, Boss. It still moos when you poke it.”

Boss? This hard-edged cowboy was the proprietor? Lauren watched as the woman forked a slab of rare beef onto his plate. She should have figured it, she supposed. He did exude an undeniable air of authority. No, maybe authoritywasn’t quite the right word. At least, not in the conventional sense. It was more like the aura people project when they’re just that confident that they have the skills to meet whatever might be around the next corner.

She’d bet, too, that he harbored a wide streak of cynicism. It was there in the set of his mouth, as attractive as it was. Yes, his character was certainly set in his bones. High, intelligent forehead, strong cheekbones, stubborn chin. What in God’s name drew a man like this to the hospitality industry?

He cleared his throat, and she realized he was waiting for her to move on. Meanwhile, she’d been standing there studying his face as though it held the key to some ancient lost secret.

“Whoops, sorry. Woolgathering.” She smiled up at him while her mind raced. If he was the owner of this operation, he was a man she should be talking to. No time like the present. She glanced around the room and the mostly empty tables, then back up at him. “So, would you like to join me for lunch? Or are you the romantic loner cowboy archetype who has to sit by himself?”

He laughed, the sound sudden and spontaneous. “Ma’am, I’m the type who never says no to a beautiful woman when she asks me to dine with her,” he said. “Not sure what archetype that makes me, except red-blooded man.”

Inside, she felt a few butterflies at the idea of eating her meal with him watching her through those hooded eyes. There was something unsettling about his intensity. But she smiled back at him and said, “Thank you.”

He followed her to the small tablecloth-draped table near the window that she’d staked out earlier and drew out a chair for her. So, the cowboy had manners. She placed her loaded plate on the table and took a seat.

“Cal Taggart,” he said, seating himself opposite her and extending a hand.

“Lauren Townsend.” She extended her own hand, grateful that he merely shook it in a firm clasp and released it. Better and better. She hated it when guys held on too long, trying to make you aware of … what? The fact that they were stronger than you?

“So, did I pass inspection back there?”

Of course, he would mention it. There went all the points for politeness. Not that she minded a little directness. It was usually the best policy. Well, except for when it came to the woo-woo stuff. Honesty, she’d come to learn, was almost universally not the best approach to that particular topic.

“I don’t know yet.” Her gaze swept his torso visible above the table. “I didn’t get past the face.”

A glint in those gray eyes was his only reaction. “And how’d the face rate?”

She pursed her lips, tilted her head consideringly. “A little too strong, but good around the eyes.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You an artist or something?”

“Or something.”

He smiled, the same smile that jerked at her senses when he’d used it on Delia.Good around the mouth, too.

“So, do I get a turn?”

She sipped her water. “I guess it would only be fair.”

He studied her. “Good hair, good bones, good diction.” His gaze fixed on her eyes. “Well-heeled east coast lady.”

“Well-heeled?” She let her lips part on a smile. “You make me sound positively proper.”

He shrugged, reaching for his own water goblet. “Could be, I suppose, if I believed it.”

She arched an eyebrow. “And you don’t?”

She waited while he chewed an ice cube. “Mouth makes a lie of the rest of it.”

Her pulse leapt. “Maybe it’s the mouth that lies.”

He made no remark, just watched her with those steady eyes. She suppressed the urge to swallow.

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