Read Ranger's Wild Woman Online

Authors: Tina Leonard

Ranger's Wild Woman

“Hey, Ranger,”

Hannah said, poking her tousled head into the truck to smile at him, that devastating, bright, cute-rocker-girl smile that had caught his attention the first time he’d been to Lonely Hearts Station.

His heart hit his boots.

He didn't like it when she smiled like that. There might be busted parts of his anatomy in his future!

“Listen,” he said, “maybe the Mississippi riverboat isn’t such a good idea for you.”

“Why not?” She opened her eyes, big and innocent, and he gathered himself up to do verbal battle.

“You’re too delicate. Far too innocent,” he said importantly. “It sounds very dangerous to be an unchaperoned female on a boat where men will be carousing and…other things.”

Her stare had a twinkle in it, and the smile she gave him almost melted his heart. “So maybe you should come with me.”

RANGER’S WILD WOMAN
Tina Leonard

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tina Leonard loves to laugh, which is one of the many reasons she loves writing Harlequin American Romance books. In another lifetime, Tina thought she would 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 that readers will enjoy the love of family she writes about in her books. Recently a reviewer wrote, “Leonard has 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!

Books by Tina Leonard

HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE

748—COWBOY COOTCHIE-COO

758—DADDY’S LITTLE DARLINGS

771—THE MOST ELIGIBLE…DADDY

796—A MATCH MADE IN TEXAS

811—COWBOY BE MINE

829—SURPRISE! SURPRISE!

846—SPECIAL ORDER GROOM

873—HIS ARRANGED MARRIAGE

905—QUADRUPLETS ON THE DOORSTEP

977—FRISCO JOE’S FIANCÉE

981—LAREDO’S SASSY SWEETHEART

986—RANGER’S WILD WOMAN

HARLEQUIN INTRIGUE

576—A MAN OF HONOR

There are a lot of folks who keep me inspired, and I’d like to thank them, starting with my grandmother. Love ya, Mimi! Lisa and Dean—Mumzie adores you!

What would I do without my cool editors and the many wonderful folks at Harlequin who keep me working and coherent? Thanks!

Georgia Haynes, wonderful proofreader and brainstormer—yee-haw!

And a special thank-you to the wonderful Scandalous Ladies: Debbie Gilbert, Maria D. Velazquez, Ellen Kennedy, Wendy Crutcher, Debbie Jett aka dj, Debora Hosey, Fatin Soufan and Kendra Patterson. You gals have added so much spice and fun to my life!

Prologue

A man wants what he can’t have, not always to his betterment.

—Maverick Jefferson explaining to his young sons why they couldn’t ride Shoeshine Johnson’s legendary red bounty bull, Killer Bee

The beautiful old chapel in Union Junction was filled to standing room only. It seemed that everyone had come to see Sheriff Cannady’s sole child wed. Even Delilah and the ladies of her Lonely Hearts Salon had come to fill in as mother and sisters to Mimi. In fact, they’d pretty much taken over the baking, the decorating and, Mason had heard, the choosing of Mimi’s trousseau.

According to Last—who’d been as thick into the preparations as Delilah’s crew, though that was more the lure of the women than fascination with wedding plans—the wedding-night nightie was a heart attack of epic proportions.

Guaranteed to make a grown man go weak at the knees and rock-hard in the—

Mason forced his thoughts away from the dangerous wedding-night nightie. He shifted uncomfortably in the pew, thinking he’d rather be tied to a stake in the Alaskan wilderness with honey on his toes as a lure for wild animals. Anywhere but here in this flower-filled chapel. But, because of duty, for the sake of years of friendship, and for Mimi, he was here to see her marry another man.

His whole body felt strangely weak, weirdly ill and past the point of medical assistance. He was sweating through his black suit, and so nervous his feet were cold-prickling, as if straight pins were sticking through his shoes. Truth was, he was lucky as all get out that he wasn’t standing up there in the groom’s hot spot. Obviously, Mason was suffering vicarious wedding jitters, no doubt symbiotic, empathetic fear that was surely coursing through Brian O’Flannigan and telepathing to Mason.

How fortunate that I’m sitting here in the front row, the position of family favor, while he’s standing there, about to be yoked.

He resisted the uncharacteristic urge to bite his nails. Crack his knuckles. Or even sigh.

His nine unmarried brothers sat beside him in the pew, their postures as rigid and unmoving as his.

Behind him sat Annabelle and Frisco Joe, as well as Laredo and Katy. The housekeeper, Helga, was baby-sitting Emmie at home.

Ranger had tried to talk to Mason about Mimi, as had Last. In fact, every one of his brothers seemed to think he was playing the coward’s role, that he needed to do something about Mimi’s marriage.

He had no intention of doing a thing.
She
was doing exactly what she should. Mimi and Mason were best friends, and no third party could ever change that.

Nor would Mason have changed it. One didn’t marry one’s best friend. No point in ruining a wonderful, since-childhood friendship by asking more of it than it ever could be.

Marriage was messy.

Not to mention he had nine younger unmarried brothers to look after. They might not be children, but sometimes they acted like it, and he needed to keep his focus on them. Add to that the fact that the family was now growing, with wives and children, and he had more responsibility than ever.

Matters were fine just the way they were.

And yet, when Mimi floated down the aisle on Sheriff Cannady’s arm, passing by Mason with the sweetest, happiest smile on her face—she smiled
right
at him—her expression all glowing, it seemed heated pitchforks speared his heart. Pierced it to pieces.

God, she was lovely. More beautiful than he’d ever realized.

Maybe all his brothers were right. Maybe he did have his head lodged firmly in an unmentionable part of his anatomy. He meditated on this as the ceremony
progressed, not hearing any of the words being spoken until the minister’s voice rose dramatically, perhaps even pointedly.

“If any person can show just cause that Mimi Cannady should not wed Brian O’Flannigan, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

The chapel was deathly silent, so eerily still that Mason could hear his own heartbeat
thud, thud, thud
in his ears. His suit went from merely hotter-than-hell to a prison of boiling fire as every eye in the church seemed to pin itself on him. Even Reverend Kendall glanced his way, though surely not with any meaning behind it.

Speak now or forever hold your peace.

He tapped his fingers on his knee.

Say it or forever keep a doofus, Uncle-Mason smile on his face every time he saw Mimi, which would be often, since she’d be living right next door, like always. He’d smile when she became pregnant. Smile when she proudly watched her children take their first steps. Smile when she taught them to ride their ponies. When she had birthday parties for them. When she grew gray and contented with her husband, forty years from today.

Speak now or forever hold your peace!

Mason cleared his throat.

Chapter One

Ranger Jefferson had never seen such a case of pigheadedness in all his life, but Mason won the prize, if there was such a thing. How could Mason have let Mimi get away the way he had?

Too much was happening too fast around the Union Junction Ranch. Even too much for Ranger. Moreover, if he didn’t get away from his twin’s silly e-mail romance with a woman in Australia, he was going to go as cuckoo as a Swiss clock himself.

He couldn’t stand it another moment. Without telling any of his brothers, Ranger had made a decision: It was time to join the military.

Okay, so he was no spring pup at thirty-two. But there were wars being fought all over the world, and the least he could do was volunteer for the National Guard. Maybe more.

He aimed to find out. Throwing his duffel over his shoulder, he headed out the door toward his truck.

“Where are you going?” Helga asked him.

“Shh,” he told her. “It’s a secret.”

“Helga doesn’t like secrets.” She frowned at him, and he smiled back, eager to keep on her good side before she roused Mason. Mason believed Helga was the perfect housekeeper, hired by Mimi Cannady not too long ago, though nothing could be further from the truth. Helga was horrible, and Mimi had enjoyed knowing there was no cute young thing keeping house for Mason.

Of course, Mimi was married now, and that meant the Jefferson brothers could ditch Helga!

Helga’s eyes narrowed on him. “I am making sauerkraut and sausage for dinner. Will you be back?”

Ugh. That decided him. His brothers would have to figure out a way to send the housekeeper packing on their own, if they weren’t all still too stunned that Mason hadn’t managed to belly up some bravery, to throw himself down on his hands and knees and marry the only woman who could ever love the pigheaded man. “I won’t be back, Helga,” he said. “Shh,” he cautioned her again. “Mason needs his rest.”

Well, that was the deciding factor. Helga adored Mason. If Mason needed his sleep, sleep was what he would get.

And Ranger would be long gone, his goodbye note of military aspirations beside Mason’s breakfast dish. Mason wouldn’t like it; he hated the fact that one by one, his brothers were leaving the family ranch, something he’d always feared.

But life had to move on, and no way was Ranger
going to end up like his twin, Archer, e-mailing some dopey girl in Australia. Or like Frisco Joe, whose leg had to be broken to get him to marry a wonderful woman. Frisco Joe and Annabelle were expecting a child, a sibling for Emmie. Of course, Annabelle looked real sweet pregnant, but…Ranger certainly didn’t want to end up like Laredo, either, who had to get himself concussed by a bull to make him see the light about Katy Goodnight.

If body parts were going to get busted when it came to women, he darn sure wasn’t going to let it happen to
him.

The military would be a whole lot safer.

He hopped in his truck, quietly pulling down the drive and away from the only home he’d ever known. Just a couple hours away from Union Junction was Lonely Hearts Station, and the women of Lonely Hearts Salon. When his older brother, Laredo, had left Union Junction back in March, he’d made the mistake of stopping into the Lonely Hearts Salon to say hello to the women who’d helped the Jefferson brothers and most of Union Junction through a terrible February storm.

Laredo had gotten roped into a rodeo, and then marriage. The concussion had come in between.

Ranger was smarter than that. On his way to the nearest military base, he was going to drive straight through Lonely Hearts Station, Texas, without stopping.

No waving. No hello shouted through the window.
Last month, when he’d been helping Laredo learn how to ride the Lonely Hearts Salon’s champion bull, Bloodthirsty Black, he’d met Hannah Hotchkiss, and she’d just about made him think twice about his narrowly divided world. He’d also met Cissy Kisserton, an employee of a rival beauty shop, who’d also made him think twice about life as he knew it. The two women had just about come to blows over him, and he’d liked it!

But…not enough to sacrifice a bone or a body part.

“There’s bad luck in that town,” he said to no one in particular as he sped down the highway, happy to be heading east and away from the ranch. “I’m too cagey to get caught in that heart trap. All that love business is a mess! Lonely Hearts ladies, Never Lonely Cut-n-Gurls—it’s a soap-opera city. I’m passing through there at top speed!”

 

R
ANGER’S PLAN WORKED
—until he saw the tall blonde waving at him in front of the Never Lonely Cut-n-Gurls Salon. “Dang it!” he muttered. “I
almost
made it.”

Cissy Kisserton pulled open the truck door and tossed a silver-foil suitcase inside. “Thought I recognized your vehicle, Ranger. How fortunate for me, because I was about to hitch to the nearest highway.”

Ranger couldn’t imagine Cissy having trouble finding a ride. Yet he still didn’t want to be the one to give it to her. She looked devastatingly gorgeous in
skin-tight jeans and a cutoff T-shirt—dressed down for traveling and yet still packing dynamite.

“Shew!” he said under his breath. “I don’t know where I’m going,” he told Cissy.

“Neither do I. We’ll get wherever together.”

“But I may be stopping at the military base east of here!”

“Cool,” she said. “I love a man in uniform.”

He frowned at that. “I was planning on traveling alone, actually.” No point in letting this silvery female use her wiles on him—there might be a busted limb in it! This town wasn’t lucky for men.

“Lonely is bad, Ranger. We’ve learned our lesson about anyplace with the word
Lonely
in it. And we simply can’t let you travel alone.” Cissy tossed another suitcase into the truckbed, this one leopard-printed.

“We?”

“Hey, Ranger,” Hannah Hotchkiss said, poking her tousled head around Cissy to smile at him, that devastatingly bright, cute-rocker-girl smile that had caught his attention the first time he’d been to Lonely Hearts Station. His heart hit his boots. These two women had nearly reinvented the catfight, bringing it to new form over him! Well, maybe not so much in the physical, girls-mudwrestling fantasy he’d had about the two of them, but that was something he would keep to himself. He didn’t want both of them in the truck with him. There might be
two
busted parts of his anatomy in his future!

Cissy crawled in the front seat, ignoring his frown. Hannah jerked open the door to the extended cab. “Uh, Ranger, did you say you were traveling alone?” Hannah asked.

“Well, I
was.

“Well, you
weren’t,
” she said, mimicking his tone. “There’s a man in your back seat.”

He whirled around, his jaw dropping when he saw his twin grinning up at him from his napping place in the back. “Archer! What in the
hell
are you doing?”

“Heretofore, I’ve been listening to you cuss all the way to Lonely Hearts Station,” Archer said with a grin. “But now that we’ve got seatmates, I’d say this trip is going to be a whole lot sweeter!”

Which just showed how little his twin knew.

 

T
HEREIN LAY THE RUB
, Mason told himself, which was a pretty stupid expression. What rub? he asked himself sourly. What fool had time to sit around and think up such stupid sayings?

The fact was, he was feeling testy, and he knew it, and his brothers knew it, though they hadn’t complained as yet. Actually, they
had
complained—to each other when they thought he couldn’t hear them. But they had spared him their grousing, and he knew why. Pity. Plain and simple pity, which was worse than if they’d just come right out and chewed his butt.

Mason sighed, pulled his hat down lower, and stared into his coffee cup. At this moment, he was
only fit company for his horse, and so the barn was where he sat. And the word of the day was
moping.
He was moping—couldn’t call it anything else—something he’d always told his brothers they weren’t allowed to do. So he was hiding out here with Samson, because the horse wouldn’t tattle on him and didn’t care anyway as long as his hay was fresh.

“You like having me around, doncha?” he asked Samson softly, running a hand over the horse’s back. “Not like
some
people I know.”

Mimi. Mimi, Mimi, Mimi. Why did his mind always come back to her?

“And therein lies the rub,” he said to Samson. “Not the kind of rub you like. The kind that really sticks in my craw, that makes my gut churn. I guess,” he murmured on a deep sigh, “I guess I’ll only say this to you once, and to no one else, but seeing Mimi walk down the aisle with Brian tore my heart right out of me. I thought I could handle it. I thought it wouldn’t matter. But, ol’ pal, it mattered. It just about mattered more than anything in my whole life.”

It mattered so much he could barely show his face anywhere. The whole town knew, of course. Everybody had known that he loved Mimi. He just hadn’t known it. He so much hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself.

“And there are reasons for that, but none I’m going into, even with you,” he said with a last gentle rub over Samson’s back. He swiped his coffee cup and
headed to the house. There were some things he wasn’t going to think about—some fears not worth mentioning.

 

T
HROUGH THE MAIN HOUSE
window, Last watched Mason as he left the barn and walked toward home. “Talk about a sore head,” he muttered to Tex. “That one’s a walking case of soreness.”

Tex peered at Mason moving slowly toward the house, his gait not as firm as it once had been. “Why in the hell didn’t he stop her?”

They both knew the “her” was better left unnamed. “Because he couldn’t,” Last said. “Mason couldn’t stop Dad from leaving. He knew some people do what they have to do sometimes, regardless of what other people need or want. And Mimi couldn’t wait around forever. Lord only knows, Mason was never going to marry her. And we all realized that.”

“It would have taken a miracle,” Tex agreed. “I am never falling in love. Never. It’s much easier just to sleep with a woman who only wants sex.” He leered happily until he caught another glimpse of Mason’s face, set in sad lines. “And that’s another thing I can’t figure out. Why didn’t he just
sleep
with Mimi?”

Last gasped. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Well,
hell,
” Tex complained. “He
wanted
her. Even if he acted like he wanted an arm-shave more.”

“Yeah, but she’s like our little sister!”

“But that was the problem,” Tex insisted. “I think he knew his feelings toward her were stronger than
that, but he thought that was sacrilegious or something.”

“But he couldn’t have
slept
with Mimi,” Last argued, still horrified. “That wouldn’t have been right. I mean, Sheriff Cannady’s daughter!”

“Well, then.” Tex returned to the toaster where he discovered he’d burned the bread to a crisp. Smoke came out, and a disgusting odor. “Hell-on-fire,” he complained. “Helga’s gonna kill me. I’ve messed up her domain.”

Last shrugged, watching Mason kick mud off the porch that one of the brothers had scraped from their boots. “If you ask me, life is going to get a lot messier around here, more than any of us would like.”

And it was all Mason’s fault. Unfortunately, as Last and Tex had just discussed, Last really didn’t have an answer for what his big brother, Mason,
should
have done. All he knew was that whatever
needed
to be done hadn’t
gotten
done, and now they were all forced to live with the consequences—except Ranger, who had escaped.
Traitor.

“Where’s Archer?” Mason demanded as he walked into the kitchen.

“I ain’t my brother’s keeper,” Tex replied, his voice instantly tense. “Make that plural, just so you’ll know.”

Last stared at Mason. “What do you mean, where’s Archer?”

“His roll-up tent and sleeping bag are missing from the barn storage.”

Last groaned to himself. One more brother on the lam. Whether Mason wanted to admit it to himself or not, he was driving his family away one by one—just as he had Mimi.

And Mason couldn’t stop them from leaving—any more than he could have stopped their father, Maverick, from leaving when Mason was seventeen.

That’s what love did to a man.

“It’s not going to happen to me,” Tex swore quietly, so that no one heard him except Last, who didn’t need to be told what he meant.
“Never.”

Last nodded. Maybe it was better if love didn’t hit any more of them. So far, in their family, love was a disastrous affair with biblically epic consequences.

“We’re doomed,” he murmured to himself, seeing the stone-carved expression on Mason’s face.

“Doomed.”

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