Read Liz Ireland Online

Authors: A Cowboy's Heart

Liz Ireland

“I guess it’s a little silly to be discussing all this with you,” Will said. “I doubt you’ve ever fallen in or out of love.”

The words rubbed Paulie’s fur the wrong way. Why was Will blind to the fact that she’d been crazy about him for years?

Never been in love?
How could he just assume such a thing?

“That just shows how smart you are!” she said tartly. “You don’t know the first thing about me; Will!”

He turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise. “Well, have you?”

Now that she’d started, she wasn’t going to back down. “If you must know, I have,” she said, tossing her head back defiantly. “Deeply in love.”

“Who is the object of all this love you claim to have stored up? Is it somebody I know?”

“I’d say you know him pretty well, Will Brockett,” she said. “In fact, sometimes I think it’s the person you care most about in the world!”

Dear Reader,

Heroes come in many forms, as this month’s books prove from the roguish knight and the wealthy marquess to the potent gunslinger and the handsome cowboy.

Handsome wrangler Will Brockett will lasso your affection in
A Cowboy’s Heart,
a darling new Western by awardwinning author Liz Ireland, who writes both historical and contemporary romances for Harlequin. Be prepared to laugh out loud as you watch the guilt-ridden Will try to rescue the fiancée he jilted, with the help of a plucky tomboy who is determined to have him notice
her.
Don’t miss the sparks flying!

Fans of roguish knights will adore Ross Lion Sutherland and the lovely female clan leader he sets his sights on in
Taming the Lion,
the riveting new SUTHERLAND SERIES medieval novel by the talented Suzanne Barclay. You
must
meet Nicholas Stanhope, the magnificent Marquess of Englemere in
The Wedding Gamble
by newcomer Julia Justiss. Keep some hankies near as the tension builds between two friends who “marry for convenience” and must deny their love.

Rounding out the month is the irresistible Sheriff Delaney, a mysterious ex-gunslinger who inherits a house-and a lovely young widow-in
The Marriage Knot
by Mary McBride.

Whatever your tastes in reading, you’ll be sure to find a romantic journey back to the past between the covers of a Harlequin Historicals® novel.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell

Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to:

Harlequin Reader Service

U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

A COWBOY’S HEART
L
IZ
I
RELAND

Books by Liz Ireland

Harlequin Historicals

Cecilia and the Stranger
#286

Millie and the Fugitive
#330

Prim and Improper
#410

A Cowboy’s Heart
#466

Silhouette Romance

Man Trap
#963

The Birds and the Bees
#988

Mom for a Week
#1058

LIZ IRELAND

lives in her native state of Texas, a place she feels gives her a never-ending supply of colorful characters. Aside from writing romance novels and tending to two very demanding cats and a guard dachshund, she enjoys spending time reading history or cozying up with an old movie.

For James and Dana and Will

Chapter One

South Texas, 1883

T
rip Peabody would have trouble staying on a horse if somebody glued him onto the saddle. At least, that was Paulie Johnson’s assessment of the man’s abilities as she watched Trip limp back into Possum Trot leading Feather by the reins. The man just didn’t have the gift of balance. Staying permanently upright, whether on horseback or afoot, was a skill he had never been able to perfect.

Paulie, who had been tilting back in her chair on the porch of the Dry Wallow saloon, enjoying the brisk winter morning, brought the front legs of her chair down with a crash and hopped to her feet. “Land’s sake, Trip,” she called out. “Don’t tell me you
walked
Feather all the way to Fort Stockton and back.”

Trip let out one of his thin wheezes that passed for a laugh. “Couldn’t have made it back this fast if I had, now could I?”

She had sent Trip off four days ago to deposit the Dry Wallow’s money in a bank in Fort Stockton, and to see when they might be getting some whiskey. If not soon, she
would have to take a wagon and go fetch some herself. Supplies were low-down to tequila, mostly-and she’d already raised the prices high enough that men were starting to grumble. She didn’t want a riot on her hands.

But she wasn’t much fond of travelling, either. Maybe Trip had good news. “I hope that horse threw you because you had other things on your mind—like where we’re gonna put all the whiskey that’s comin’ our way.”

Trip shook his head. “Nope.”

Paulie sighed. “Darn that old fool, Oat Murphy!”

Oat, their whiskey trader since Paulie’s father had started the saloon at the end of the war, had gone and gotten himself married. And not just married to anybody, but to Mary Ann Redfern, the prettiest, most sought-after girl for sixty miles. This was an especially amazing feat considering that Oat, who was on the sad side of sixty, had no teeth and a curmudgeonly personality; and the last time Paulie had seen him, the man looked like he hadn’t said hello to a cake of soap since Christmas.

“It’s still the talk all along the road, Paulie,” Trip informed her, as if she needed to be told. Oat’s marital windfall would be big news around these parts for years. “Heck, people talk about Oat marryin’ almost as much as they talk about that durn renegade Night Bird killin’ the three men with the railroad payroll. Seems Oat’s even given up
drinkin’
whiskey, much less tradin’ it. Says he has to be a respectable man now that he has a respectable gal.”

“Land’s sake!” she exclaimed. “What’s he gonna do for money? Mary Ann doesn’t eat respectability, I’ll bet.”

Trip shrugged. “He’ll probably try to get himself a herd and start a cattle outfit of some kind.”

Paulie shook her head. Men definitely lacked imagination! “We’ve already got more cows than sense around
here. Why doesn’t he try growin’ turnips or something useful?”

At her peculiar question, Trip staggered slightly and nearly fell off the lowest step of the Dry Wallow’s porch. The effort it took to right himself seemed to put him in mind of another puzzling question that had thrown him off balance. “Say, I wonder what Will’s gonna think about Mary Ann’s gettin’ married.”

Will!
Paulie had been wondering the same thing herself. Will Brockett had been sweet on Mary Ann Redfern for years, which was no mystery—every man within three counties was sweet on pretty Mary Ann. But Will had the edge over all the others because not only was he good-looking, he was also a friend of the family. Shoot, while old Gerald Redfern had been alive, Will had been like a member of the family. He lived at the Redfern place, worked there, and was a favorite of Gerald’s. Gerald had been a lawyer back in Louisiana who through some misplaced romanticism had decided late in life to try his hand at ranching out West. Everyone knew that there was no man the Redferns would rather see Mary Ann hitched to than Will.

But Gerald had been gone for three years, dead of pneumonia. A year later his wife had married a man, Mr. Breen, who raised a lot of chickens, and Will had started driving cattle up to Kansas every season. Every winter, he had the dubious distinction of being Possum Trot’s sheriff.

But he was, to Paulie’s mind, the best-looking thing that ever wore boots, on top of being her favorite person in the whole world. Seven months he had been gone, and every hour of every day of every month had held a twinge of lonesomeness without him there. Paulie was beginning to think the hollow feeling in her chest was bound to be permanent.
“Will’s been gone so long, he might never be coming back,” she said mournfully.

“Oh, I guess we’ll see him soon enough,” Trip said. “In Fort Stockton I heard that he’d been seen over in San Antonio.”

Paulie sucked in a sharp breath. The news almost made her light-headed. “Will, back in Texas?” she asked, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice.

“High time. He’s been gone since spring.”

And now it was November. That meant Will would probably stick on his badge and winter in Possum Trot again. It wasn’t much of a town, so they didn’t really need a sheriff, but it was nice to have one occasionally. Especially with that outlaw Night Bird prowling around. Especially when the sheriff was Will Brockett!

Of course, in Paulie’s opinion, the man could just sit on the Dry Wallow’s porch all day whittling a stick and she’d still call him brilliant. She had been sweet on Will Brockett since she’d first clapped eyes on him. But she’d been a little kid then, and he hadn’t paid attention to her. Then, as she grew older, and even after her father died and left her the Dry Wallow saloon, he seemed to view her more as a figure of fun than of romance. He liked to banter with her, but she knew he didn’t take her seriously.

“Good old Will.” She sighed as her heart fluttered in her chest.

But Trip was once again preoccupied with the topic of the century. “I still can’t believe Mary Ann couldn’t do no better than Oat Murphy,” he said, tugging at one corner of his bushy mustache. He took one of the porch steps and nearly landed flat on his face. “It’s got me thinkin’ though.”

“About what?” Paulie asked, barely able to get her mind
off Will for one minute. He’d been seen already…in San Antonio! She felt like dancing a whoop-de-jig.

“Well…” Trip conjectured slowly, “if Oat can win a girl like Mary Ann, seems like I should at least be able to rate Tessie Hale.”

Paulie rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Trip, I bet Tessie Hale’s been waiting for you to propose to her since I was in diapers. I swear, you men are so thick it’s a wonder anything can stir you up. I’m surprised that poor widow didn’t despair and propose to Oat herself years ago.”

Trip’s eyes widened in panic at the notion. “That would be terrible!”

“Well relax, it can’t happen now.”

He let out a breath. “That’s right. Oat’s married to Mary Ann.”

It was such a hard idea to swallow! Beautiful, spoiled Mary Ann and Oat Murphy!

“I wonder what made her do it,” Paulie said, joining Trip in rumination. Will would surely be disappointed to find his sweetheart married to a toothless old whiskey man.

“People are sayin’ that Mary Ann started gettin’ restless. She never did like that chicken rancher stepfather of hers none. Called him Mr. Chicken. They’re. also sayin’ that maybe she got scared with Night Bird in the area and all, on account of her blond hair. She thought he’d prize her scalp.”

“She would!” Paulie scoffed. “Mary Ann thinks
everybody
loves that yellow hair of hers. Trouble is, nobody seems to hold it in as much esteem as Mary Ann does herself.”

Trip laughed. “Still and all, somebody said she was afraid Night Bird was going to come after her.”

At the thought of the mysterious Comanche renegade who had been plaguing the area, Paulie let out a sigh of
thanks that he had caused her no harm—yet. Twice she had awakened in the night, only to discover the next morning that there were bottles missing from the bar downstairs. Given the Indian’s reputation, she would gladly sacrifice a few bottles in exchange for her scalp.

Except now Oat wasn’t ever going to bring a shipment. That was troubling. Her stock was running low. Business had declined with Night Bird roaming the area, but it would slam to an absolute standstill if she had nothing to sell.

Yet it was hard to keep her mind on those problems for two minutes. Will was coming home!

And now, without Mary Ann to distract him, maybe he would notice her more, Paulie thought. She looked down at her rough clothes—men’s clothes—and began to worry. Will had always made fun of her for dressing like a man, and now she didn’t have anything else to wear.

Coincidentally, Trip was giving himself a good onceover, too—no doubt wondering what the widow Hale would think of the worn-out rags he called clothes. Not much, Paulie was sure. She and Trip had fallen a few notches below stylishness sometime in the past decade.

“I wonder if Dwight has any duds my size,” Trip said. He was tall and lanky and always looked awkward in the clothes he got from Dwight’s Mercantile, the only other business in Possum Trot.

“I know he doesn’t have a dress,” Paulie said with a little despair.

“What call would I have for one of those things?” Trip asked.

“I meant for me, chowderhead.”

Trip’s eyes widened. “A dress? Why, you haven’t worn one of those since…” He scratched his head. “Since I don’t know when!”

“My last one split a seam back in seventy-eight.” She
shrugged. She’d never been handy with a needle, and so never replaced the dress. Instead, she wore boots, breeches, and plain cotton shirts, just like all the men who came into the Dry Wallow saloon. Of course, her father wouldn’t have approved, but he’d been gone six years now. And the change in her apparel had proved good for business. After a while, people got used to seeing her dressed that way, and became more comfortable doing business with an eccentric woman than a feminine one. She owned the only saloon for thirty miles, and business thrived.

As had her feelings for Will Brockett. She wished she could do something that would make him sit up and take notice of her. “I wish my hair was blond instead of dirtcolored.” Mary Ann’s hair was the color of corn silk.

Trip assessed her appearance, from her worn-out boots and loose britches up to the crown of her hair, which she wore in a simple long braid down her back. “It ain’t so much dirt, maybe, as wood-colored,” he said encouragingly.

“Thanks, Trip.”

“At least you ain’t gone gray,” he moped, pushing his hat forward self-consciously. “I guess I look pretty old.”

“I hate to break the news to you, Trip, but Tessie’s practically white-headed herself now. I doubt she’d hold your age against you.”

“Still…” Trip shook his head.

Paulie leaned against the porch rail and let out her breath. “Oh, I guess we’re pretty silly to be sitting out here worrying about how we look at this late date. Nothing’s gonna turn my stump-colored hair blond any more than you’ll ever get your old brown locks back.”

Trip eyed her suspiciously. “Who’re you tryin’ to impress?”

“Nobody,” Paulie answered quickly. If Trip ever found
out the extent of her feelings for Will, she’d never hear the end of it. “Can’t a person just wish she was blond once in a while?”

A picture entered her mind, of herself, dressed like a real lady in some shiny kind of material—maybe real silk, even. She was at a ball, the kind she’d only read about in some of her father’s books, and Will was there, too, handsome as ever. He took her hand, which was mercifully free of unsightly freckles, and lifted it gently to his lips. Then he sent her one of those naughty grins of his. Laughing flirtatiously, with her free hand Paulie tapped him on the shoulder with her fan…

“Paulie?”

At the insistent sound of Trip’s voice, Paulie shook her head. “Huh?”

“I said, I think I’ll go home. Maybe even clean up a bit.”

She felt one of her eyebrows dart up. “You goin’ courtin’ tonight?”

He stiffened, his expression immediately turning defensive. “Did I
say
anything about courtin’? Can’t a body just get clean after a long trip just to…to get clean?”

Paulie shrugged. “You were just talking about Tessie, so naturally…”

“Yeah, well, that road from Fort Stockton was dusty. You might want a bath, too. We’re both a sight, Paulie. Rough people for a rough country.”

That was the truth. Here she was daydreaming of dazzling Will, when really she was on her way to becoming a female version of poor Trip Peabody. And like Trip, she would probably never work up the courage to admit her feelings to the object of her affection.

Then again, her father had always said that nothing was hopeless until you gave up hope. Paulie liked to think of
herself as an optimist. Now that Mary Ann was out of the picture, she just had to think of a way to make Will notice her. And, though it might not have been the most practical dream in the world, she couldn’t help hoping that once he did notice her, he would never want to look at another woman again.

“There has to be a way…”

“Way to what?” Trip asked curiously.

“To gussy ourselves up,” she said. To his continued quizzical stare she added, “Well, do you want to impress Tessie Hale or don’t you?”

“Why sure,” he agreed eagerly, nearly slipping off the bar stool. “But what I’m curious to know is, why do
you
want to impress her?”

Paulie rolled her eyes. “Have another drink, Trip.”

Will couldn’t take his eyes off her. He knew he was staring at Paulie Johnson, but she looked so different, so…strange. All at once, it seemed as if this tiny corner of the world had gone mad.

Possum Trot had always had its eccentricities.

But even given Will’s tolerance for strangeness bred of years of living in Possum Trot, he wasn’t prepared for the odd sight of Paulie Johnson prancing around in a frilly white dress.

He stood in the door several minutes, perfectly aware that he was gaping at her as she dried glasses behind the bar. Then at last, she looked up and saw him. She sucked in a breath and her green eyes sparked with joy, but all Will could focus on was her hair, which he had somehow managed to miss right up to this moment. Lord, it looked like somebody had taken an eggbeater to it!

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