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Charlene Sands
The Heart of a Cowboy

Take care of Sarah for me, Case, and the baby, too. Reid’s dying words echoed in his head. He’d made the promise while Reid was drawing his last breath. But Case hadn’t stayed on too long after the funeral. He’d headed back to the rodeo straight away.

Sarah was in good hands, he’d told himself. Her sister Delaney and her two young daughters had come to spend time on the ranch, keeping Sarah company, helping her cope with her loss and the pregnancy. Case knew she’d been taken care of then, but summer was over now and Delaney was gone. She’d taken her children back to California when the new school session began.

A hefty dose of conscience had struck Case while pulling back a pint of Jack Daniels and he’d called Sarah from Denver one night. She’d been crying, but darn her stubborn pride, tried her best to disguise it. Sarah Johnston Jarrett couldn’t lie worth a damn.

Case knew then, he had to come home. For Sarah and for Reid. The irony was, that for all his good intentions, he now had to come face-to-face with the woman he’d been avoiding for the past six years. The woman he’d secretly wanted. The only woman in the entire state of Arizona who could make him break out in a sweat with one pretty smile.

Case had his share of beautiful women, but no one compared to Sarah, in his mind. He’d envied his brother but never once begrudged Reid his happiness. Reid deserved every single ounce of joy he could attain. He’d been a good man, solid, dependable, a man Case had been proud to call brother.

If only Case had stayed on at the ranch.

But Case couldn’t live under the same roof with Sarah. He couldn’t afford for anyone to find out, that Case Jarrett, ladies’ man and all-around bad boy, had fallen hard for his brother’s girl. The day they married, Case took off, leaving the ranch, claiming a need to sow his oats and ride rodeo.

“Hello, Case,” Sarah said, from just outside the front door. She moved to the porch post and leaned against it. She was heavy with child now and her movements seemed labored. There would be no grand greeting for him, no happy welcome home. He couldn’t say he deserved it, either, but often he wished just once, Sarah’s eyes would light for him, the way they’d always done for Reid.

“Sarah,” Case said, nodding and removing his hat.

They stared awkwardly at each other for a moment. Then Case lifted his boot heels and headed her way. Red dust swirled under him as he ate up the yard with long measured strides until he faced Sarah. Her sweet flowery scent knocked his senses for a loop. How the woman always managed to smell so damn good, Case couldn’t figure.

“What are you doing here?” she asked cautiously, checking him over from head to toe. “Did you get injured again?”

Case had come home from the rodeo circuit once when he’d busted his ribs from a fall off a feisty bronc named Dynamite Dan. That and for a few days during each Christmas were the only times Case had ever returned to the ranch.

He shook his head and lifted his arms out wide. “Nope. All in one piece this time.” She didn’t appear relieved. Instead her expression bordered on wary and he knew what question was on her mind—why had he come home? She wouldn’t like his answer. She wouldn’t take kindly to his return. And for Case, it wouldn’t be easy living under the same roof with Sarah, wanting her the way he did, but an equal measure of guilt and honor had brought him home, for good. “Hey, how many babies you have in there?” he asked, glancing at her belly. “Last time I saw you, you could fit inside the barn door.”

That comment brought a soft chuckle to her lips. Sarah was beautiful when she smiled. He’d have to get used to seeing those smiles on a daily basis and not react to them. He couldn’t let Sarah know what one of her pretty little smiles did to him. “Only one, but he seems to be growing faster than Bobbi Sue’s baby heifer.” She placed her hand over her abdomen.

Case took in her appearance. Her eyes looked weary, the soft blue ovals were rimmed with red. Subtle contours of her lovely face appeared drawn and tight. And although her golden hair shone like sunshine, Sarah looked exhausted. “You feeling okay, Sarah?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re working too hard,” he said, moving a little closer, getting a better look.

Her smile faded some and she took a step back. That was Sarah, always backing off from him, always wary. “I need to keep busy, Case, and there’s lots of work to do.”

Sarah had been working too hard. Well, that was about to change. Case let his brother down once and that mistake might have cost Reid his life. Case wasn’t about to neglect his brother’s widow or his unborn child. Not again. He wasn’t going to let Sarah work herself into the ground, either. He knew she had a stubborn streak. She was one determined lady who didn’t back down from trouble.

And there had been trouble. But it hadn’t been Sarah who had confided in him. No, he had to find out from Benny Vasquez, the neighbor on their south border, that Sarah had been threatened by pushy land developers to sell out. The woman probably thought she could handle the situation on her own. He hadn’t given Sarah much reason to trust him, but damn it, he sure would’ve liked it better if she’d been the one to confide in him about what was going on.

Whether Sarah wanted him to stay on or not, he’d see to the trouble. Case would bet his championship belt buckle, Sarah wasn’t going to be happy about it. Not one bit.

He rubbed the side of his neck and glanced her way. “Let me get the trailer unhitched and my bags unpacked and we’ll talk.”

Her light blond brows arched up. “Your bags?”

There was a look of panic on her face with that dawning knowledge. Couldn’t be helped. Case’s mind was made up. He and Sarah were going to live together at the Triple R, and both were going to have to deal with the consequences. “That’s right. I’m moving back home, Sarah. To stay.”

Sarah fidgeted nervously in the kitchen, strumming her fingers against the oak table and tapping her toe against the floor. She heard Case upstairs; slamming shut drawers, opening the sliding closet doors, whistling out a tune as he made himself at home.

She reminded herself, this was his home, too. He owned half of the Triple R, not that he seemed to care much about it lately. It appeared that the minute she and Reid married, Case was out the door, leaving his family home and his legacy behind. Reid had never complained, he just picked up the slack, but Sarah had often wondered why Case had left so abruptly. She couldn’t help but feel she’d intruded on his life, barging into his home and taking over.

He said he was home…to stay. Dread crept up her spine. Case was a virtual stranger to her now. She’d hardly spoken to him in six years. She didn’t know him anymore. How could she manage to live with Case, in this house, after all that had happened between them in the past? Sarah’s stomach churned, a queasy feeling reminiscent of her early pregnancy. Only this time, it wasn’t the baby causing commotion to her insides, but instead, the baby’s uncle.

He was Reid’s brother and he did own half of the Triple R, but Sarah hadn’t given much thought as to what she’d do when Case decided to claim his half of the ranch. She certainly hadn’t expected him to come home now. She knew he was riding high on the rodeo circuit, having won several bronc-riding championships. He’d been sending money, and that amount had doubled lately from his recent successes, to help with ranch expenses and Reid’s hospital bills. The ranch was heavily mortgaged to pay those debts and Sarah honestly didn’t know how she’d manage to pay off the loans. But one thing was certain, she wasn’t going to give up on the Triple R.

With Case it was different. He’d seemed to lose interest with the ranch and as soon as he was old enough, he’d taken off. His sudden unexpected reappearance had really rattled her.

By law and by rights, her share of the ranch would belong to her child one day. Moving off this land had never been an option. She loved the ranch too much to think of leaving. The Triple R was home. But she never thought she’d live here without Reid. She’d never fathomed a freakish accident would claim her husband’s life.

The raging dust storm that had spooked the animals and caused the barn collapse had nearly taken Reid, as well. A wooden beam from the rickety barn loft had struck him down as he tried saving the animals. He’d lingered for days, fighting off the crushing pain to his chest and Sarah had been by his side, holding on, listening as Reid uttered words of assurance. There had been silent understanding in his words, and Sarah’s heart bled each time Reid would make plans for her future without him. In the quiet moments right before Reid’s death, he’d said point-blank, the Triple R would be her home forever. Sarah had prayed for the best, but feared the worst. And then the worst did happen…his heart gave way. Reid died five days after the accident.

And now Sarah would be living with Case.

She heard footsteps descending on the stairway and stood up abruptly to pour the coffee she’d brewed. But the fast move made her light-headed and she swayed, grabbing for the kitchen chair.

“Sarah?” Case was beside her instantly, steadying her shoulders with strong hands.

The room spun, and Sarah took a deep breath. A moment later, her head cleared. She looked into a set of deep brown, concerned eyes. And her skin burned from the heat of Case’s solid hold on her, his fingers gently digging in, reminding her what it felt like to be in a man’s arms. Reminding her, what it had been like being in his arms. But Sarah didn’t want to dwell on the past. She had enough to deal with, right now, in the present. “I’m okay. The doctor says not to get up too fast. My blood pressure’s a bit low and quick moves tend to make me dizzy.”

Case helped ease her down into a chair. “Sit down and take it easy.”

“You don’t know what you’re in for, living with a pregnant woman.” She couldn’t believe what she’d be in for, living with Case, either. They both had some adjusting to do.

Case’s eyes never left her face. He sat down across from her. “I’ve got a feeling I’m going to learn about it right quick. So, you don’t mind me coming back?”

“What about the rodeo?” she asked abruptly. Of course, she minded, but she had no right tossing him out. He owned an equal share of the ranch.

He studied her face for a moment. “I’m entered in a handful more events so I’ll go back from time to time, but this is my last year. I’m through. What do you say, Sarah? Can you abide me coming back to the ranch?”

She shrugged. What could she say? She couldn’t very well kick him out. He’d left the ranch at a bad time. Money had been tight, beef prices down and they couldn’t afford to hire on any more help. Reid had done the work of two men to make ends meet back then, but now, it was Case’s turn to work the land, she supposed. “It’s your home, Case. Reid would want it this way.”

“But…not you?”

Sarah wouldn’t lie. She had her doubts about these living arrangements. He was Reid’s brother, but he was also a man Sarah couldn’t trust. He’d let Reid down too many times. “Case, we hardly know each other anymore. At best, it’ll be awkward.”

“Sarah, listen. I need to be here right now, but you have my word, I’ll stay out of your way. I know about the threats you’ve received.” His tone sobered considerably and his expression grew fierce. His deep dark eyes penetrated hers with raw determination. “Nobody threatens a Jarrett.”

“Case, they weren’t threats really. Mr. Merriman from the Beckman Corporation got a little too…enthusiastic in his bid to get me to sell the ranch. His company is planning this big housing community called Beckman Bridle Homes and the Triple R seems to be right smack in the middle of where they intend to build.”

“I heard the McPhersons refused the offer, too. Not too long after their barn burned down suspiciously.”

“Yes, that’s true. It happened last week, but they can’t prove anything. Luckily no one was hurt. Seth McPherson spotted the fire and they put it out before any livestock got caught in the flames.”

“You should have told me about this. I had a right to know.” Anger burned low and intense in Case’s dark eyes.

“I didn’t think you’d…”

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