"Oh, Miss Summers, do remember what I said. Don't ever, ever, ever fall in love with a cowboy."
As the stagecoach lumbered to a shuddering halt in the center of the tiny Wyoming town called Hope, the stout woman wearing the feather-trimmed hat and the puce traveling gown leaned forward, and nodded wisely at the blond girl seated across from her. "If you do," she sighed, "he'll only break your heart."
"Don't worry, Mrs. Casper." The blond girl's tone was reassuring. She straightened the satin bow atop her smart pink hat, smoothed her pale lavender skirt, and managed a smile for the woman who had talked incessantly since boarding the stage, mostly about her niece in Kansas who'd been left brokenhearted by a smooth-talking wrangler. Despite her tendency to babble, Mrs. Casper was kind, and Caitlin appreciated kindness. She hadn't seen much of it lately.
"I promise you, there's no need to worry about me." The girl spoke quietly as the stagecoach driver clambered down from his perch and the coach swayed. "There is absolutely no chance of my falling in love with anyone."
Ever again, she thought firmly.
Once had been more than enough.
Caitlin fought the pain that squeezed around her heart as Alec Ballantree's sensitive, beautifully handsome face surged into her mind. She didn't want to think about that, or the fact that her reticule contained only a meager twelve dollars and forty-seven cents, all the money she had left in the world--or about any of the countless other ways her life had fallen apart in the past few months. She wanted to think only of what must be done, only about Becky, the little sister who needed her. Only about the future.
But her stomach clenched at the thought of all the responsibilities facing her. Her eleven-year-old sister's wan little face and worried brown eyes lingered in her mind and she knew she must not fail.
She turned her attention to the sights beyond the stagecoach window, trying to concentrate on the town, to forget her weariness, the length of her journey, and the uncertainty of the future. She was here now, in Hope, and it was only a matter of hours before she reached her father's ranch.
Cloud Ranch. Reese Summers's pride and joy.
The town looked small, but bustling. Laughing children ran along the boardwalk, while men in chaps and spurs and Stetsons strode up and down the street. Women wearing bonnets and bright gingham dresses bustled in and out of various shops. And there were wagons and buggies and horses everywhere she looked. From the saloon came the tinny plinking of piano keys and the sound of deep raucous laughter.
Mrs. Casper's high-pitched voice overrode everything else.
"Mmm, take that one there for example. Isn't he a handsome devil? Just the kind to steer clear of, dear. Mark my words."
Caitlin spotted him even as Mrs. Casper spoke. For a moment her breath caught in her throat. The dark-haired man leaning against the railing outside of Hicks Mercantile was eyeing the stagecoach, his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his dark pants, two six-shooters slung in the gunbelt fastened across his lean hips. Handsome devil didn't begin to describe him. Dangerous, gorgeous, intimidating--those words did describe him, Caitlin thought faintly.
Well over six feet tall, he was deeply bronzed and muscular, with sharp, even features, wide shoulders, and an air of nonchalance.
Was he a gunfighter perhaps? she wondered a bit uneasily. There was something undeniably dangerous about him. His looks and demeanor didn't shout danger--but instead whispered it.
He was certainly handsome, but in a completely different way from Alec, she thought as she recalled her former fiance's curling light brown hair and debonair smile, his quick laughter and smooth elegant hands, hands befitting the gold signet ring that had been in his family for four generations. This man, this cowboy, appeared to be about as different from Alec Ballantree as a slab of steak from a lobster patty.
This man, with his pitch-black hair just long enough to brush his shirt collar, and the cool diamond-blue eyes that glinted from beneath the brim of his hat, was rugged as rock and looked as if he'd never seen the inside of an opera house or a tearoom, never had a servant shine his shoes or draw his bath.
Never danced a waltz with a woman beneath a crystal chandelier and told her he loved her . . . told her he would always love her . . .
He looked tough and capable--and just a tiny bit angry.
About what, she had no idea--and wouldn't even try to guess. There was no time to waste speculating about handsome strangers, especially cowboys, whom Mrs. Casper had spent the last few days of the journey warning her about.
She had to find Wade Barclay, her late father's foreman, and get to the ranch.
"Hope, Wyoming!" the stagecoach driver bellowed, and threw open the stagecoach doors. As he let down the steps with a grunt, she bade farewell to Mrs. Casper, clutched her pink satin reticule between her gloved fingers, and carefully stepped down into the dusty street.
Hope. That's what she wanted, what she needed. Hope. Hope that the sale of the ranch would go smoothly and swiftly, hope that she could return to Becky as soon as possible.
Hope that no more trouble would catch up to them.
Caitlin peered up and down the street. The handsome cowboy had straightened and was studying her, but she resolutely ignored him. When she spotted the older, potbellied man in the huge white Stetson ambling toward her, she felt a wave of relief.
He looked exactly as she had pictured her father's foreman. Genial, easygoing, avuncular. And punctual. She was grateful he had met the stagecoach on time.
"You're Miz Summers, ain't you?" He squinted at her, but it wasn't his close-set eyes or the mole on his chin she noticed but the beet redness of his bulbous nose. "I'm--"
"Yes, of course, I know who you are. Good afternoon, Mr. Barclay. I appreciate your arriving here on time."
The man stumbled as he reached her, and Caitlin instinctively shot out a hand to steady him. She tensed though as she smelled the liquor on his breath.
"Mr. Barclay . . . are you all right?"
"Wha? Never better, little lady. But call me Wesley."
"Wesley? I thought your name was Wade--"
"Hell, no, honey, I reckon I know my own name."
Excerpted from Rough Wrangler, Tender Kisses by Jill Gregory. Copyright © 2000 by Jill Gregory. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.