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Charlene Sands
The Heart of a Cowboy


“Well, it’s not as though you’ve taken an interest in the ranch, Case.”

“The ranch is my business now, Sarah. And you, living all alone out here.”

Sarah was alone now. And she felt it every day. She’d been lost when Reid died, and had to fight off her melancholy for the baby’s sake. She’d never known this kind of loneliness before. “There’s more than half a dozen hands on the ranch. I’m not entirely alone. Besides, I handled Mr. Merriman in my own way. He probably won’t be back.”

“How can you be sure?”

“You didn’t see the look in his eyes when I pulled out Reid’s Winchester and aimed it straight at his heart.”

Case’s lips lifted in a small crooked smile and uncannily, Sarah felt that smile all the way to her toes. “You chased him off the property?”

She nodded, remembering that day all too well. The man had been more threatening than she’d let on to Case. And he’d forced himself inside the house, using verbal pressure when she’d refused his offer of sale. What was worse, the man knew of the ranch’s outstanding debts and that they were headed for financial trouble. He played on that until Sarah couldn’t take another minute of it. She’d asked him to leave twice, before reaching for that rifle. “You could say that.”

Case shook his head. “You won’t have to worry about him again.”

Probably not, she thought wryly, but now she’d have another worry. She didn’t relish living with a man like Case. They’d had a history together that she didn’t enjoy recalling. Growing up in a small country town, their paths had crossed more times than not. Case hadn’t made her life easy. Two years her senior, he’d been a bully at times, a tease, and later when they’d been in their late teens, he’d played a trick on her. One she still smarted from.

One she had trouble forgetting. And forgiving.

Case Jarrett may have shared similar looks with her late husband Reid, but the differences between the two were clearly notable to her now. Oh, not physically, but Sarah couldn’t help but look at Case and see the man who had abandoned Reid and the Triple R when he was needed the most. Sarah saw a man bent on danger. She saw him as the man who had tricked and cajoled her one too many times.

How Sarah had ever been fooled in the past by their identical appearance, she couldn’t understand now. And the scar slanting down Case’s cheek from his right eye only marked him as different to others…a way of singling him out from Reid. But to Sarah, Case was nothing like Reid, and she didn’t need that facial wound to remind her that Case Jarrett was certainly not his brother.

“Is that why you’re back, Case? Are you worried about the ranch?”

Case narrowed his eyes and drew in a long breath, deep in thought. “It’s my responsibility now, Sarah.”

She nodded, wondering why, after all this time Case felt the need to own up to his responsibilities. He’d never been the type to settle down. And if his coming back had anything to do with her, she needed to make one thing abundantly clear. “But I’m not.”

“You’re not what?” he asked, the picture of innocence.

“Your responsibility. I can take care of myself.”

Case had the good sense to stifle a smug smile, but Sarah sensed she knew what he’d been thinking. She’d nearly fainted dead away just now from dizziness. And he’d been the one to catch her before the fall. “Tough pregnant lady, are you?”

“I’m a rancher’s wife, aren’t I?” At least she had been, up until five months ago. The heartache was still with her each and every day, but she had the baby to think about so she looked to the future instead of aching in the past. More than anything she wanted this child to thrive. Nurturing this baby was her only source of comfort.

Case nodded and averted his eyes. He stood then and poured coffee into a mug. “I’ve got to have a talk with Old Pete and let that crotchety foreman know I’m back at the ranch. I’ll spend the day out on the range, checking over the place. I plan to do my share of the chores around the house, too, so don’t you lift a finger on my account. I didn’t come back home to add to your work. I’ll be back in time for supper. I’m cooking tonight.”

“You cook?” she asked, startled. Sarah knew Case was a capable man, but she didn’t think of him being comfortable in the kitchen.

“Don’t get too excited. I get by. My meals are edible, barely. I’ll let you be the judge.”

Sarah lifted herself from the chair, bracing a hand on the table for support. Case reached his hand out, but then quickly retracted the offer once Sarah had straightened without his help. “One chance is all you’re getting, Case, so make it a good meal. The baby needs his nourishment. And I get real crabby when I’m hungry.”

“I’ll make a note of that.”

Sarah watched Case leave out the back door then heaved a deep wearisome sigh. Case Jarrett was back. She’d have to get used to him being around, is all. There wasn’t a doggone thing she could do about her circumstances. She and Case would be living under the same roof from now on.

Whether she liked it or not.

Case burned the steaks on the grill. The potatoes were choked with garlic and Sarah had never seen flatter biscuits. But she ate the meal without a fuss and listened to Case’s assessment of how he’d like to make a few changes on the ranch.

He had ideas for saving money and time that Sarah thought sound enough. She agreed with him on some things and gave her opposition on others. Case listened to her quietly, nodding his head then strengthening his arguments to make her see things from his point of view. He had a stubborn streak that matched her own, especially when he believed he was right. Which was pretty much all the time.

When dinner was over, Case helped Sarah bring the plates to the sink. He rinsed as she loaded the dishwasher. At times they worked so closely, their hands brushing as he handed her one dish after another, Sarah felt the need to flee. She hadn’t been touched in such a long time, and twice today, Case had touched her. Once to catch her fall and now this. It was silly to feel so awkward around him. She’d known him a long time. He was her husband’s brother, uncle to her unborn child. But she also felt a sense of disloyalty, irrational; as it seemed that she was somehow betraying Reid by engaging in such domestic rituals with another man.

Get a grip, she warned herself, this is how it’s going to be from now on.

Case looked around the kitchen, nodding his head, claiming that the dinner was a success and the room was cleaned. Sarah had to burst his bubble. Her baby needed more than meat and potatoes to survive and so did she. She cleared her throat and smiled sweetly. “Case, thanks for the meal, but I think I’ll take over the cooking duties from now on.”

Case stood with both hands on his hips, pursed his lips and studied her for a time. “Thank God,” he said finally, surprising her.

“W-what? I thought you wanted to cook some of the meals?”

His lips parted with a devilish grin. “Hell no. I hate my own cooking.”

“Then, why did you offer?”

“Seemed like the right thing to do, Sarah. You nearly keeled over right in front of me today. I was afraid my being here was an added burden to you.”

That was true, but feeding him had nothing to do with it. It was the seeing him every night and waking up in the morning part of their arrangement, that Sarah disliked. She’d be living with her husband’s brother, a man she didn’t know all too well, a man she had a brief history with in the past. She’d put that part of her life behind her, only to have Case move in here and remind her all over again, about times she’d rather not recall.

And besides all that, she hated losing her privacy. She wasn’t always at her best, being eight full months pregnant. Some days she just wanted to scream down the walls and others she wanted to cry until there were no more tears left to shed. It didn’t set well that Case had to witness some of her less than perfect days. She was too tired to try to cover up her feelings from anyone, anymore.

“You made me eat charcoal steak and greasy potatoes, Case. That’s cruel and unusual punishment. From now on, we’ll have a well-balanced meal. The baby needs his vitamins.”

“If you say so,” he said, lifting dark eyes her way. She wore a pair of loose denim overalls with a tiny T-shirt top underneath. It was comfortable attire and she knew she must look like an overstuffed Mrs. Farmer John. Yet, his eyes traveled over her, grazing her with heat as he peered at her blossoming chest. Sarah had never been so well endowed. Her body was preparing for nourishing the baby and it appeared, Case had noticed. The appreciation she noted in his eyes brought forth tingles that ran the length of her spine. With one heated look, Case had the ability to make her forget she was eight months pregnant. With one look, he’d made her feel soft and feminine again.

Sarah cleared her throat. “I do. But tomorrow’s dinner will be a little bit late. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon in Prescott.”

“Who’s taking you?” Case asked immediately.

“Well, nobody. I’m driving in myself.”

“Like hell you are. What time is your appointment?”

“Three.”

“I’ll take you.”

“That’s really not necessary.” Sarah didn’t understand Case’s sudden involvement in her life. She’d made it clear that she wasn’t his responsibility. She didn’t want him watching out for her. She had to learn to get by without any help since she was going to be a single mother. Case was the last man she’d ever rely on. He’d proven time and again that he couldn’t be trusted. “I’m perfectly capable of driving to town, Case.”

He came up as close as he could get without crushing the baby and pinned her with a look. “And what if you get dizzy again? Then what?”

“I only get dizzy if I move too fast. And I’m being very careful about that.”

Case blew out a breath and the classic Jarrett pig-headed expression stole over his face. Sarah knew she’d be better off agreeing, since no amount of discussion was going to change his mind and she just wasn’t up for an argument. Having Case move back home had taken a definite toll on her today.
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