BRANDED BY THE TEXAS RANCHER
Copyright © 2010
With a final flourish of the paintbrush, Rebecca Wade stood back on the landing and admired her handiwork. It looked good, even if she said so herself. The pale lemon walls had added light and space to an otherwise dark and dingy walkway. A woman’s touch was all that had been needed to bring the run-down house up to her exacting standards. The roof might still be leaking, but that could all be resolved with a little time and money.
As she walked along the landing proudly surveying her work, she noticed an unpainted patch of wall. She leaned over the banister, securing her hand to the rail. Just as she reached forward with the paintbrush, she heard the sound of splintering timber. Her heart somersaulted in her chest as she saw the rail detach from the wall.
Rebecca’s whole life flashed before her as she lost her footing. The banister gave way and crashed to the ground floor some ten feet below. With barely any time to think, she just managed to grab hold of the newel post. She let out a long slow breath as she stared down into the hallway.
She brushed a trembling hand across her eyes, to wipe away tears of frustration. Just why had she put herself through all this? As a woman on her own, in a foreign country, she’d been trying for weeks to make something of this wreck of a house. Surely it was madness?
To become the new teacher at the local school in Avery Grove, Central Texas, she’d had to jump through hoops. Now, she’d nearly fallen and broken her neck within just three weeks of arriving. She could so easily have stayed in England in her safe, little world. So, just why hadn’t she?
She went into the bathroom and splashed cold water onto her face. When she looked at her reflection in the mirror, blue eyes stared back. An accusation surfaced in her memory and slammed into the harsh light of day. You’re cold and frigid. The last words that Jason had spoken to her when he’d broken off their engagement, one month before their wedding. She wasn’t a virgin, Jason had seen to that, but she hadn’t responded to him at all sexually. Maybe that was why he’d dumped her.
Rejection was the real reason she’d traveled halfway around the world. The humiliation had eaten away at her until she’d wanted to start completely afresh.
In her mind’s eye, she could see the knowing looks from the doubters who had delighted in trying to crush her hopes for the future. Friends and family had all predicted her return to England within three months. She could still hear their sneering comments. You’ll never make it on your own. You’ll be back before Christmas.
Well, she had news for them, she wouldn’t be returning any time soon. She would not let anything stand in her way. Not even a run-down house like this one. Maybe if she’d had more time she would have seen the house for what it was and steered clear of it. But with the new school term looming, and the deadline to begin work, she’d picked it up cheap at an auction. Now that she’d bought it, she had no choice but to make the best of it.
Perhaps the reason for all this madness was perfectly simple. In a different country she could become the woman she’d always wanted to be. At the age of twenty-eight, she felt her chances of that happening in England were practically zero. Her father had taught her to hold everything in check. To show one’s true feelings would be considered immoral. That upbringing pervaded everything she did.
No, she had definitely done the right thing by coming to America. A clean break was the only way to move forward. Maybe now she’d be able to show her true potential.
The feelings that coursed through her veins whenever she slept had never really surfaced in Jason’s arms, but she knew they were there all the same. They lay dormant, and hidden, just waiting for the right man to release them.
In her dreams, passion existed between a man and a woman. Now that she’d left the past behind, she just hoped she’d have the courage to find her true self.
* * * *
After arriving at Avery Groves’ annual county fair, Jed Monroe parked his black SUV and then turned to his daughter. “Now don’t you go gettin’ in any scrapes, Annie, do you hear me?”
He shook his head. How many times had he warned her before? Yet, she still managed to fall into whole heaps of trouble.
He smiled as he stared at her. Her brown eyes and blonde hair were so like her mother’s, it still hurt every time he looked at her. “Here.” He dipped into his jeans and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. “Now don’t you go losing this.”
Her eyes widened. “Thanks, Pappy.” She leaned forward, kissed his cheek, and then slid from the car.
“Don’t you go spendin’ it on any nonsense, either,” he called after her. He watched her running off, her hair flowing behind her, as she raced to meet her friends.
Truth was, since Marlene had died giving birth to her, he’d tried to bring Annie up the best he could. Just over eight years he’d managed on his own, but he knew that as she grew older, she would need the guidance of a woman. Someone she could look up to and confide in.
All this running around and climbing trees, it wasn’t very ladylike. In fact, Annie had turned into a real tomboy. It was his fault, he knew, but he hadn’t quite enough time to devote to her.
He stepped out of the car and locked it with a click from the remote. Maybe he’d take a look around himself. He might even enter the rodeo. He’d already put his name down on the off chance. Last year, he had promised himself that it would be the final time, but, hell, what was the point of living if you couldn’t enjoy life?
* * * *
Rebecca smiled politely as she was introduced to yet more parents of her pupils. She wondered when it wouldn’t seem rude to slip away and return home. Never one for mixing in crowds, she longed for the solitude of her own company. Since she’d arrived in Avery Grove, she had deliberately kept herself to herself. Now, two months on, her neighbor had asked her to accompany her to the local county fair. “No arguing, darlin’,” Kate had insisted, “everyone here is curious to meet the new schoolteacher. You’ve really fired up our imagination, what with coming from England an’ all.”
“Miss Wade. Miss Wade,” a small voice called, and her hand was tugged repeatedly.
She looked down to see a familiar face. “Why, little Annie Monroe. Hello.”
Annie Monroe was a sweet-natured girl but needed a lot of praise to bring out her full potential. Unfortunately, Annie lagged behind in class, and although she’d tried to help her as much as possible, she feared the humiliation of always coming last would lead to frustration. Eventually, Annie would give up altogether.
“What are you doing all alone, Annie?”
“I’m not alone, Miss Wade. My Pappy’s here, too. He’s riding in the rodeo.”
“Isn’t that dangerous, Annie?
Annie chuckled. “Why, sure, Miss Wade, but everyone rides rodeo ’round these parts.”
“Oh?” As an outsider, all Rebecca could think of were the consequences. If Annie’s father had an accident, what would happen to his daughter? If she were ever to fit in, she guessed she had a lot to learn.
“Come on, Miss Wade. He’s going next.” Annie pulled at her hand, pointing to the corral. It was futile to resist. The little girl was obviously proud of her father, and it would seem churlish to douse her enthusiasm.
By all accounts, Annie had been a disruptive influence in class. Her previous teacher had left more than enough information on the child’s antics over the last year. Annie’s mother had been dead for some years, so perhaps that was the reason for her unruly behavior. Though, since Rebecca had started teaching at the school, her conduct had been exemplary.
Glad for the distraction, she excused herself from her neighbor and headed over to the corral. Maybe this way she could leave early, and no one would know.
Annie slid into some wooden benches on a raised platform, just as a cowboy on a bucking bronco was thrown high into the air. He landed on his butt, to the immense amusement of the crowd around them. For a few seconds he looked winded, then he stood, dusted himself down, and walked away to a round of applause.
“Pappy’s next,” Annie said, nudging her with her elbow. Rebecca almost chastised her, but the little girl continued, “I’m so proud of him, Miss Wade. I know he’s gonna win because I serve him a great big dinner every day.”
“How old are you, Annie?”
“Eight, Miss Wade.”
“Don’t you think you’re a little too young to serve your father a cooked dinner every day?”
“Miss Wade, I’ve been doing it ever since I can remember. My pappy says you’re never too young to start learning.”
Rebecca nodded. “Does he indeed.” Her blood began to boil. Annie was far too young to take on adult responsibilities. Girls of her age should be enjoying their childhood, not acting as a surrogate wife for a lazy rancher.
“There he is, Miss Wade.”
Rebecca stared over at the man slipping confidently onto the agitated horse in the enclosed pen. Dressed in a black shirt and jeans, with a typical black hat, he looked every inch the cowboy rancher. His face, craggy and lined from the sun, showed intense concentration as he took up the reins.
So that was Mr. Monroe. Already he’d intrigued her with his fine physique and strong, powerful legs.
The horse looked wild as hell, its eyes wide. It snorted and shifted repeatedly in the pen. Then the gate was opened to the cheer of the crowd. The horse bucked and reared, twisting around to unseat the weight from its back. Annie’s father hung on, following the horse’s moves to stabilize his position. He had natural balance and poise, adjusting to everything the horse could throw at him, his one hand held high in the air.
Eventually, when he reached the required eight-second duration, another rider helped him dismount from the horse. The crowd erupted in applause. With a huge grin on his face, he bowed to the crowd.
Annie squealed in delight. “He scored ninety-three. I knew he could do it, Miss Wade. He does it every year. Pappy always wins.”
Rebecca didn’t know if ninety-three was a good score, but by the cheers from the crowd, she presumed it was.
* * * *
A sense of satisfaction coursed through his veins as he walked across the corral. Jed Monroe was still king of the rodeo.
Todd and Jake thwacked his back as he started to climb over the railings to get out of the arena.
“Yeah, Jed, that’s what we like to see. An old-timer showing these young whippersnappers how to do it.”
He chuckled. “Fuck you, Todd, less of the old-timer.” He’d known Todd and Jake since they’d all been knee-high, and there’d always been camaraderie between them, and of course a sense of competitiveness.
Already he knew he’d pulled a few muscles in the process. Tomorrow he’d be sore as hell, but he wasn’t about to tell them that. He just smiled, enjoying the moment.
Sitting next to a rather elegant-looking woman, his daughter waved frantically from the raised platform. He walked over to her. When he was close enough, she launched herself into his arms, and he spun her around. It sure felt good to see her smile. “What do you think of your old Pappy now?”
“I know you’re gonna win.”
“We’ll see, Pumpkin. There’s still a few more to go yet.”
“Well, I told Miss Wade you would.”
He recognized the familiar name. His gaze scanned the soft features and flawless complexion of the stranger. So that was Miss Wade. Not an ounce of extra fat covered her body. Ever since the new schoolteacher had arrived, his daughter had spoken incessantly of her. Miss Wade this, and Miss Wade that. According to his daughter, Miss Wade was the best thing ever.
The woman sat ramrod straight, her hands clasped together on her lap. With her hair restricted by a tight bun, her heart-shaped face stared back from pale baby-blue eyes.
“Howdy,” he said, holding out his spare hand. “I believe you’re Miss Wade. My daughter has told me a lot about you.”
A smile briefly showed on her full lips before fading completely. He had the distinct feeling that Miss Wade somehow disapproved of him.
“Mr. Monroe,” she said, politely taking his hand in hers for the briefest of moments. Even on this hot sunny day, her hand felt cool to the touch.
Annie had spoken incessantly about her, as had the townsfolk, too. He’d heard all about the new schoolteacher coming over from England. In a small town, a newcomer was the topic of conversation for months. Everyone knew of her single status, and there had been wild speculation on that front. Some said she’d been jilted at the altar, while others said she’d escaped the evil clutches of an abusive fiancé.
Either way could be true, as his gaze scanned her from head to foot. Dressed in a plaid skirt that fell just below the knee and wearing a pale blue blouse buttoned extra high around the neckline, she looked like she’d stepped out of a Dickensian novel. He felt sure there was more to this woman than met the eye. Somehow she exuded a highly sensual persona. Yet, looking at her, he didn’t really know why.
After he set his daughter down, she ran off to a waiting group of friends, leaving him alone with the schoolteacher.
“Annie speaks very highly of you, Miss Wade.”
“I’m so glad, Mr. Monroe.” She looked at him for a moment. “May I be direct, Mr. Monroe?”
“Go right ahead. Folks ’round these parts ain’t nothing if not direct.”
“I was going to telephone you for a private meeting, but as you’re here, I’d like to broach the subject now. If that’s all right with you?” He nodded, and she continued, “Annie, I’m afraid, is lagging a long way behind the rest of the class. She’s a bright girl, it’s just her attention span is very short.”
He sat down on the bench next to her. A distinctive perfume assailed his senses. He recognized the smell but just couldn’t quite place it. Then he knew, gardenias, she smelled of gardenias. The exotic tones were sexy and out of sync with the way she dressed. For Christ’s sake, they were talking about his daughter, and all he could focus on was the perfume she wore. “Your predecessor said exactly the same thing. Then what can I do about it?”
“I propose some extra lessons, Mr. Monroe.”
He shook his head. “Now I want what’s best for my little girl, Miss Wade, but I ain’t sure if I can rightly afford extra lessons.”
Just then his name was called back to the arena. “I’m sorry, Miss Wade. I gotta go.”
“Mr. Monroe, if you’d like to discuss this further, please come by the schoolhouse. I’m there most evenings until seven. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”
* * * *
Rebecca watched him return to the arena to accept his prize of a silver belt buckle. When he had sat next to her, she had been overwhelmed by his presence.
He had a raw, masculine scent of wild horses and honest sweat. In truth, she had noticed everything about him, from the work-roughened hands to the sun-bleached hair that fell about his face. The strong jaw and smooth lips had all been branded in her mind. Yet, it was his eyes, so startlingly blue, standing out from his weather-tanned skin, which had caused the most impact. It was almost as if he could read her thoughts.
Rebecca took a deep breath. She wasn’t used to this hard, masculine world where men where men. It probably came from the pioneering days when the men needed to take control and carve out a living on the land. All those centuries of hard graft had filtered down to make them incredibly masculine. The type of environment she had frequented only contained men in suits.
Jason was a suit. In fact, Jason had never even broken into a sweat. Only on a couple of occasions, when she had allowed him to make love to her, had his pulse rate raised at all, and hers had simply stayed the same. Surely that proved she was devoid of any emotion?
Yet, she knew that wasn’t entirely true. Just now when Mr. Monroe had looked at her, she had felt her heart race away.
As she watched Annie’s father collect his prize, she realized she had moved into a completely different world. The fact that his daughter cooked his meals at such an early age only underlined the fact. The men here saw their women in an entirely different way. Back home in England the men she’d known had seen her as weak. They’d undermined her to a point that she had little confidence in her own abilities. Here the men expected the woman to take on duties and responsibilities.
She only hoped that Jed Monroe would take his daughter’s education as seriously as he seemed to take the rodeo.
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