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Excerpt of The Rancher Takes A Wife by Jackie Merritt

Purchase


Montana Mavericks #5
Silhouette Special
February 2010
On Sale: February 1, 2010
Featuring: Wyatt North; Melissa Avery
182 pages
ISBN: 0373310277
EAN: 9780373310272
Mass Market Paperback (reprint)
Add to Wish List

Romance

Also by Jackie Merritt:

Sweet Talk, September 2011
Paperback / e-Book
Moon Over Montana, June 2011
Paperback
Marked For Marriage, January 2011
Paperback
The Rancher Takes A Wife, February 2010
Mass Market Paperback (reprint)
The Widow And The Rodeo Man, January 2010
Mass Market Paperback (reprint)

Excerpt of The Rancher Takes A Wife by Jackie Merritt

Tracy Roper parked across the street from the police station. She sat in the car, her hands locked on the steering wheel as she let her gaze drift along the busy avenue, past the mayor's house on the corner; past the Roxy Theater, where she'd gone to summer movies with friends; past the real-estate office where she was to pick up the key to the rental house.

From where she was on Center Avenue, it was only a couple of blocks, then a left turn onto another street and a short drive to the last house on the right before the county-road intersection….

A tremor ran through her as she realized where her thoughts were taking her. Once upon a time she'd lived in that house on Stoney Ridge Road… so long ago it sometimes seemed like a dream.

Or a nightmare.

Squeals of laughter reached her through the closed windows of her compact car. She glanced down the block toward the town park, where three children played on the swings. Their mothers sat on the wooden benches that lined the play area, chatting and laughing while they kept an eye on their young charges.

For a minute, Tracy's eyes lingered on a toddler, a busy little boy whose dark hair gleamed with auburn highlights in the morning sun. When he fell in the sand, her heart lurched and her hands tightened in a painful grip.

The child's mother scooped him up in a soothing embrace and dried his tears. Tracy glanced away.

Pulling down the sun visor, she checked her face in the mirror. She looked okay, she decided. Her makeup seemed fresh enough from when she'd put it on at six that morning at her father's house in Missoula.

She'd visited him over the weekend before driving down to Whitehorn to begin her latest task—checking out some bones found on the Laughing Horse Reservation.

The tribal police and the county sheriff's office were in contention over who was in charge of the case, so the federal government had been called in. As a forensic anthropologist for the FBI, she would have full control of the investigation.

Sighing, she admitted she was putting off the moment she would have to face Judd Hensley, the county sheriff—the man who'd been her husband… the father of her child….

She picked up her purse, opened the car door and climbed out into the hot late-June sunshine. The breeze was crisp, blowing off mountains where clouds were gathering for an afternoon rain.

Before she could cross the street, a couple came out of the station and stood on the steps. She stopped as if struck by lightning.

Judd.

The sun glanced off his shining black hair with its smooth wave brushed back from his forehead. His skin was evenly, darkly tanned. The first time she'd seen him she'd thought he was an Indian.

So long ago…that magical summer when she'd been nineteen and thought all the world was in love. Seventeen years…

He'd been kneeling by the creek when she'd rounded a bend in the trail and spotted him. She'd stopped, surprised, alarmed and fascinated as he scooped up water and drank it from his hand. It had dribbled over his chest and belly.

He'd been buck naked.

She'd thought he was a savage or a character from an ancient fable somehow transported through aeons to this moment. She'd known in an instant that she'd never forget him.

He'd whipped his head around, sensing her presence. His eyes, as dark and alluring as forbidden knowledge, had taken in all aspects of her, including her soul, in one glance. He'd stood and turned in one smooth, sinuous movement.

His body had been fully erect, a symbol of the power and creative force contained within him.

Pagan, she'd thought, spellbound by his special magic.

She'd stood very still, as if in the presence of a mythical creature, not wanting to startle him into disappearing. They'd stared into each other's eyes for an eternity.

Then he'd spoken, his voice a deep rumble of concern and assurance. "Don't be afraid," he'd murmured.

He'd said the same thing two weeks later when they'd made love for the first time…

Laughter broke into her memories.

Judd's teeth gleamed strong and white against his tan while he laughed at something his companion said. The woman—Maris Wyler, Tracy decided, delving into her memories for a name to go with the face—reached up and caressed his cheek before running lightly down the steps and climbing into a truck at the curb.

Tracy watched his gaze follow the truck. The smile that had lingered on his passionately mobile mouth disappeared. A tight-lipped expression took its place. He swung his head in her direction suddenly.

Judd had thought he was prepared to meet Tracy again. It had been years since he'd seen her. The pain had long since subsided into the empty place inside him where nothing could hurt.

But he hadn't counted on this. The impact of seeing her was like getting hit with a slug from a buffalo gun. He tightened one hand into a fist, angered by the reaction that raged through his body. He watched as she left her car and approached the crosswalk.

She wore a golden yellow suit with a blouse printed in random splotches of red, blue and yellow. Her belt, heels and purse were the same shade as the blue in the blouse. Her earrings were blue flowers with golden centers. She looked like Spring personified.

Her hair was light auburn. It gleamed like copper wire in the sun, but he knew its real texture. It was the same shade, the same downy softness, wherever he'd touched it on her body.

A harsh pang of need drove through him like a heat-tempered spear. He knew exactly what she looked like without the city clothes and the makeup that highlighted her green eyes.

The mountain wind made wanton love to her as she paused, her gaze going in one direction, then the other, as she waited for a break in the bustling Monday-morning traffic.

Her skirt, coaxed by the wind, pressed between her thighs, outlining the long slender grace of her legs… legs that had once wrapped sensuously around him, demanding he give himself to her completely, holding nothing back. And he had. God, he had!

She'd taken possession of his heart and soul. She'd wound herself around him until no moment was complete without her. Then she'd rejected him, scorning him as if their marriage had become an abomination, his touch so distasteful she couldn't bear it.

He'd waited, making no demands, ignoring his own pain, knowing they both needed to heal after the death of their son, but their time had never come again. It had been the final grief.

By the time of the divorce, it had been a relief to move out. By then, he'd felt like a dry husk of a man, empty, drained, with nothing left inside to give, even if she had wanted him again.

She never had. She'd left, not returning once during the seven years since the divorce. He forced the unwanted feelings into abeyance. It was better to be empty. Life was easier.

***

Tracy crossed the street, her two-inch heels clicking noisily on the pavement. She should have worn flats, but she would have felt short next to Judd's six-feet-plus frame, even though she was a bit over five-seven herself. She needed to feel in control, not like that foolish teenager who'd thought physical attraction was enough to build a life on.

The station steps had an iron railing running down the middle of them. She started up the right side of it. Judd was on the other side. He started down. They met in the middle.

He moved down one more step, so that they stood eye-to-eye. His hand brushed hers on the railing as he paused. A flash of sensation raced across her skin, almost like a pain.

"Hello, Tracy," he said, moving his hand farther up the railing. The other settled below where she gripped the smooth iron like a lifeline. "How are you?"

She stared at their hands, his tanned skin dark next to her paleness. There were tiny black hairs on the backs of his hands. His fingers were well-shaped, long and slender… sensuous.

A strange shiver ran over her, as if she could feel them caressing her, running down her breasts, her ribs, her stomach, her thighs….

With a gasp, she tore her gaze from those hands whose touch she'd once loved more than anything. "Fine," she finally answered. "And you?"

He shrugged. His shoulders were broad. He wore the uniform of the county sheriff well, at ease with the authority it imparted.

The dark brown shirt with the gold-silver-and-black badge that stated his official status hugged his muscular torso with great accuracy. The dark brown stripe up the side of the light brown pants made his legs seem even longer and more powerful.

A sudden memory came to her, sensual and compelling. During the cold Montana winters, he'd always slept close to her, his leg thrown across her thighs, his arm over her waist. Once he'd murmured it was too bad they didn't live at the North Pole so he could hold her close every night of the year.

She felt the warming of her body, the softness creeping inside her, the moist heat forming as she prepared to receive him. She tightened her grip on the railing.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

She looked at him, helpless, haunted by a love she hadn't asked for, hadn't known how to handle, by a passion that wouldn't leave her completely.

A shock of dark hair, a whispered voice behind her at the theater, a graceful movement of a man glimpsed at a distance and it was like a door opening inside her, welcoming the man whose image the hair, the voice or the movement had invoked.

"Yes," she said, gathering herself together. "Of course. I thought I'd check in with you to let you know I was in town."

"What are your plans?"

"Well, I have to pick up the key to the house I rented—"

"I have it. The agent left on a fishing trip. He said he might not make it back if the fish were biting, so he gave me the key last Friday."

"Oh. Well, good." What else was there to say? Her residence while she was here could hardly be kept a secret. "I want to go out to the site where the bones were found as soon as possible."

"Right." He sounded crisp and official. "You have a meeting with the tribal chairman and attorney in the morning. They want to discuss the situation."

"Okay." She could tell Judd didn't like the idea of consulting with the others. If a crime had been committed in the county, he wanted to jump right on the case.

He was a man who took his responsibilities seriously. When they'd suspected she was pregnant that summer many years ago, he'd insisted they marry immediately. "Growing up is hard enough in this day and age without being a bastard in the bargain," he'd said, then grinned. "I don't intend to let you go."

She knew his own youth had been unhappy. His parents, though married and wealthy, had quarreled all the time. When Judd had come out to Montana on a vacation after practicing law with his father for three years, he'd liked the wide, open spaces, the peace he'd found there. That was the summer they'd met.

He'd stayed—against his parents' wishes—and started work as a rookie in the sheriff's department when they married. They'd been deliriously happy that year. At least, she had.

"We'll go to the site after the meeting. You'll need to wear jeans and hiking shoes. It's rough country." He looked at his watch. "Have you had lunch?"

"No, I'd forgotten about it."

He nodded and looked away. "Yeah."

Tracy knew he was recalling the past. He used to tease her about losing herself in whatever she was doing, whether researching forensic techniques or planting a garden. He'd often arrived home to find her buried in a project, no supper on the table, the bed unmade, in spite of her good intentions.

He would always chuckle at her consternation, and they would end up making love. Later, they would prepare the meal together.

Judd had been a patient, forbearing husband. Eight years her senior, he'd been indulgent toward her enthusiastic rush through life. He'd made no demands, except that she welcome his caress….

She turned her back on him and the memories he invoked and headed for her car.

"We'll go by your…house first. Then we'll pick up something to eat and go to my office. I have the reports you requested and the topography maps," he said, easily keeping up with her, his stride long and surefooted.

She wondered at the hesitation before he mentioned her rental house. Was it because he, too, remembered the house they'd built together? It had been small but perfect, set on its own ten acres with woods all around it, next to Route 17.

After the divorce, the house had been sold and the profit split between them. She'd invested her share, unable to bring herself to spend it. It had felt like blood money, spoils from the death of their marriage… and the death of their son.

Judd pulled out of the parking lot in his unmarked county vehicle, which was a black sports utility truck. The only difference between it and others of its kind was the wire-mesh glass that could be rolled up between the driver and the rear seat, and the fact that the rear doors couldn't be opened from inside the vehicle.

Behind him, Tracy eased into the traffic flow and followed him to Pale Bluff Lane. The rental house was a white, two-bedroom cottage set behind a picket fence. Multiflora roses covered the fence along the side of the driveway.

He stopped in front of the house while Tracy turned into the drive and parked under the carport. He met her at the front door, fished the key out of his pocket and let her precede him into the house. "I, uh, had someone come over and give it a good cleaning on Saturday. It was rather grimy."

"Thank you." She was clearly startled by this news. She looked around the tiny living room. "Oh, this is really nice." Her smile was hesitant, but pleased.

He noticed the way the light from the window reflected in her eyes, turning them from mossy to golden green. He'd liked to make love to her outside, on the grass with the sun streaming over them, her eyes the color of new leaves as she smiled up at him.

When they'd made love like that, he'd carefully shielded her tender skin from the sun with his own body, which tanned easily.

He cursed silently at himself. "I'll bring your stuff in."

"I'll help," she said. "It isn't much."

It wasn't—only a soft-sided suitcase with wheels and a nylon carpetbag with a matching makeup bag. He recognized the latter. She'd asked for them as a Christmas present years ago. He and Thadd had picked them out. He was surprised she still had them, or that she would use them.

Excerpt from The Rancher Takes A Wife by Jackie Merritt
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