"What the hell are you doing back here in Bitter Creek?"
Billy Coburn heard the challenge in the low, menacing voice but took his time turning to confront Jackson Blackthorne. He set his cigarette in the corner of his mouth, squinting against the smoke that caught under the brim of his Stetson, and stuck his boot on the brass footrail at the base of the Armadillo Bar. "None of your damn business," he said at last.
Billy saw the anger flare in the older man's eyes and watched his shoulders square as he straightened. Billy almost smiled. Jackson Blackthorne's six-foot-three-inch height wasn't going to intimidate him. He was an inch taller than Blackjack, maybe even broader in the shoulders, and a hell of a lot leaner in the hip. His father--it felt strange to use the word, since he was the man's bastard son--didn't scare him.
"We had a deal," Blackjack said. "I agreed to put that badge on your chest, and you agreed to stay as far from my daughter and this town as you could get."
Billy thumbed a smudge off the silver TSCRA badge that was pinned to a leather folder stuck in his breast pocket. As a result of a deal he'd made with Blackjack, he'd become a field agent for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers' Association, hunting down modern-day cattle rustlers and horse thieves.
He laid a hand on the Colt .45 holstered high on his hip, met Blackjack's stare, and said, "I've kept my part of the bargain. I've been living in Amarillo for the past two years." Which was about as far as you could go north and west of Bitter Creek and still stay in Texas. "I haven't seen or spoken to your daughter since I left town."
"What I want to know is why you've shown up here now, two weeks before Summer's wedding. If you've got any notion of interfering--"
"I've kept my part of the bargain," Billy repeated, his blood pounding in his temples as he absorbed the stunning news that Summer Blackthorne was about to be married. "I haven't seen Summer in the two years I've been gone. And I made sure before I left that she hated my guts."
That also had been part of the deal.
As far as Billy knew, Summer Blackthorne still hated him. But he felt an ache inside when he thought of her walking down the aisle with some other man. Once upon a time he'd hoped that she'd be marrying him.
But that was a long time--and a couple of significant revelations--ago.
"If you're not here because of the wedding, what are you doing back in Bitter Creek?" Blackjack said.
Billy followed Blackjack's gaze to a booth on the other side of the bar. Summer Blackthorne was sitting there as pretty as you please. And she was every bit as pretty now as she'd been when he'd left her behind two years ago. She was laughing, her head thrown back to expose a long, slender neck. Soft blond curls fell over her shoulders--and onto the male arm that was draped possessively around her. The man must be her fiance.
Billy hated him on sight. He felt the hairs on his nape stand on end and fought back the jealousy and sense of loss that made his stomach knot and his throat thicken painfully. Summer didn't belong to him. Never had and never would.
"I asked you a question," Blackjack said. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Billy took the cigarette from his mouth, flicked it onto the sawdusted cement floor, and ground it out with his boot. "Like I said, none of your business."
"Look, son, I've had about as much--"
"Don't ever call me son. You haven't earned the right."
Billy saw the irritation flash in Blackjack's eyes. Maybe it was wrong to blame his father for what had happened. After all, it was Blackjack's wife Eve who'd arranged to have Johnny Ray Coburn marry Billy's mother Dora when she turned up at Blackjack's back door unwed and pregnant--and then paid Dora to keep the truth from Blackjack for twenty-five years.
But it was Blackjack who'd come with three hard men and beaten Billy badly enough to put him in the hospital when he wouldn't promise to stay away from Summer. Billy had been lying in the hospital, ribs broken, eyes swollen closed, a dozen stitches in his face, when Blackjack had shown up in his room. Dora had finally told him the truth. And he'd passed it on to Billy.
I'm your father.
None of his physical wounds had equaled the agony he'd felt when Blackjack said those fateful words--which made Summer his half sister . . . and out of reach forever.
"I won't apologize for what I couldn't help," Blackjack said, meeting Billy's gaze in the mirror over the bar.
"Nobody asked you to."
"I couldn't take a chance on you and Summer getting together," Blackjack said. "You're blood kin."
Billy's eyes narrowed. "No. We're not."
Blackjack's face turned ashen. "Who told you that?"
Billy smirked. "I notice you're not denying it."
"I asked you a question. Answer it."
"I learned the truth from Summer."
"What? How could she possibly know--"
"She heard you and her mother arguing," Billy said. "She knows about her mother's affair with your foreman. She knows she's not your daughter." Which meant he and Summer were not related after all, that there was no reason they couldn't have become man and wife.
"Does she know that you're my son?"
"I didn't tell her." As far as Billy knew, Summer still had no idea he was Blackjack's son.
"When did she-- How long has she--"
"She's known the truth the whole two years I've been gone," Billy said. "She came to see me, bawling her eyes out because she'd heard you two arguing and found out about her mother's affair."
Blackjack frowned. "So you knew you two weren't related even before--"
"Even before I made her hate me by telling her you'd paid me off to get out of her life."
"So why did you leave, if you knew the truth?"
"My reasons are my own."
There was no way Billy could explain how much he'd wanted that job Blackjack had offered him. How much he'd yearned for the chance to become someone respectable, to leave behind the labels that had been pinned on him all his life. He'd walked away from this isolated cow town in the middle of the South Texas prairie determined to make something of himself, so that someday he might be the kind of man that Summer would be proud to call her husband. But he hadn't managed to do it fast enough. She was getting married in two weeks.
He was too late.
Blackjack shoved his hat back and rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Why didn't Summer say something to me if she knew I'm not her father?"
"That's the best part," Billy said. "She didn't want you to know she knew the truth, because she was afraid you'd treat her different. I could understand her point."
He saw Blackjack wince. It was an unspoken secret around town that Billy's drunken stepfather had often left bruises with his fists. Billy hadn't understood at the time why nothing he did ever pleased his "father." When he'd found out the truth--that Johnny Ray Coburn's marriage to his mother had been arranged, and that the deed to the ranch where they lived, along with a monthly stipend, had been payments for keeping the truth from Blackjack--he'd understood why Johnny Ray resented all the things about Billy that reminded him of the man who'd sired him.
Billy met Blackjack's gaze, daring his father to badmouth his stepfather.
"I didn't know about you being mine when your father--your stepfather--was alive or I would--"
"Would have done what?" Billy interrupted. "Acknowledged me as your son?" He snorted when Blackjack said nothing. "Or played Good Samaritan?" Billy couldn't keep the venom from his voice, but he managed to speak softly enough that only Blackjack could hear what he said next. "Everybody in town knew what was going on in that house. Anybody could have stopped it."
But nobody had. Partly because Billy had been too ashamed to admit that his stepfather was hitting him and made up excuses for the bruises when anyone asked. The beatings hadn't stopped until he was fourteen and started growing--and ended up six inches taller than his "father"--and could defend himself.
A silence fell between them.
Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson were singing "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" on the jukebox, and the rowdy Friday-night crowd was singing along. The bar was smoky and dark, with the year-round Christmas tree lights that lined the mirror above the bar providing a falsely cheerful glow.
"It doesn't really matter why you're here," Blackjack said at last. "So long as you're gone in the next twenty-four hours. If you're still in Bitter Creek the day after tomorrow, I'll make sure that badge comes off and the job goes away. Is that understood?"
Billy said nothing, simply stared back into his father's cold gray eyes. What could he say? Jackson Blackthorne would do what he had to. And Billy would do what he had to.
Someone smacked a palm against the glass aquarium at the end of the bar and the dangerous diamondback inside lifted its head and rattled an irritable chik-chik-chik-chik-chik.
Billy turned to chase away the man who was bothering the snake--and locked eyes with Summer Blackthorne.
Billy felt his heart leap to his throat, making speech impossible. He searched Summer's face, seeing the wounded look in her hazel eyes, the pouty lower lip, the petal-soft cheeks, the silky golden curls that made him yearn to touch.
At that instant, the bartender showed up and set a baby bottle in front of Billy. "Here's that milk you ordered. I had to warm it up on the stove in back."
Billy saw the startled look in Summer's eyes. He turned toward the bartender and said, "What do I owe you?"
The bartender waved a hand and grinned. "It's on the house. Can't wait to tell folks how Bad Billy Coburn showed up at the Armadillo Bar at two in the mornin' askin' me to fill a baby bottle with warm milk. You gonna suck that up yourself? Or you got a baby somewhere? Didn't hear you got married or nothin'."
The bartender waited expectantly for an answer. Billy felt the hot flush running up his throat as he met Blackjack's speculative gaze in the mirror above the bar. He didn't dare look at Summer. He wasn't about to tell these people why he needed a baby bottle filled with warm milk. It was none of their damn business.
"Thanks," Billy said. He took the bottle and headed for the door, his ferocious look daring any of the drunken cowboys he passed along the way to say a word. He hadn't been called Bad Billy Coburn all his life for nothing. He'd grown up in Bitter Creek fighting everyone and everything. Even if you weren't looking for trouble, Bad Billy Coburn would give it to you.
He shoved his way out the door, then stopped and gulped a breath of cool, fresh air.
I'm not Bad Billy anymore. I'm just Billy.
He'd grown up in the two years he'd been gone. He'd become a respected and respectable man. He was a TSCRA field inspector, a lawman who carried a gun and hunted down bad men. He was no longer looking for trouble.
But goddamn if it didn't always seem to find him.
What were the chances he'd run into Jackson Blackthorne first thing on his return to Bitter Creek? And Summer. She was the last person he'd wanted to see. He'd spent the past two years putting her out of his mind, telling himself he had to focus on making a life for himself before he could ever think about coming back to mend fences with her. He shouldn't be here now. But here he was.
Billy headed for his pickup, his long strides eating up the distance across the potholed asphalt. He'd reached the hood of his battered Dodge when he heard Summer calling him.
"Billy! Wait up. Billy! I want to talk to you."
He could have run. He could have jumped inside the cab and gunned the engine and been gone before Summer caught up to him. But it might be the last chance he had to talk with her before she got married. Before she belonged to another man.
A quick glance showed that the baby strapped securely in the car seat had finally cried himself to sleep. He'd been wailing so loudly and miserably, after being so good during the long drive from Amarillo, that Billy had stopped at the Armadillo Bar to get a bottle of warm milk before driving the last half hour home.
Billy reached through the open window and set the bottle on the seat, then turned and crossed his arms, leaning his hip against the rusted-out fender, waiting for Summer Blackthorne to reach him.
She was breathless when she stopped in front of him, her chest heaving beneath the tailored white Western shirt she'd belted into skintight Levi's. She was wearing her favorite pair of tooled red leather cowboy boots, which cost more than he and his mother and his younger sister Emma used to spend on food in six months.
It reminded him why he'd left the broken-down ranch where he'd grown up to seek a better life. Summer Blackthorne was way out of his class. And nothing much had changed in two years.
"What do you want, Summer?"
She looked anxious and uncertain. He resisted the urge to offer comfort. They'd been good friends--just friends--for a couple of years before she'd gotten curious two years ago and kissed him. There'd been no going back to being friends after that. He'd wanted more. He'd wanted it all, even if she hadn't been sure whether she wanted him as more than a friend. But Blackjack had put a stop to that.
"I hear you're getting married," he said, to make sure he kept his distance--and she kept hers.
"In two weeks," she said.
"I guess congratulations are in order."
He lifted a brow. "You must like this one, if you agreed to marry him." She'd often told him how much she resented her father shoving young men under her nose for approval. How all Blackjack wanted was for her to marry some scion of a landed family and bear him a grandson who could grow up and run the Bitter Creek Cattle Company, when what she'd always wanted was to run Bitter Creek herself.
Excerpted from The Loner by Joan Johnston. Copyright © 2002 by Joan Johnston. 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.