THE COWBOY excerpt
(Prologue–edited for content by the author, JOAN JOHNSTON)
Callie couldn’t stop trembling. Her knees turned to mush, and she landed on the edge of the bed as the phone clattered back into its cradle.
“Trace. . .” she croaked.
The sheets wrapped around Trace’s waist as he turned over and leaned up on one elbow, brushing at the sleep in his eyes. It was only a little after four in the afternoon, but they’d both dropped off to sleep after some pretty incredible sex. He took one look at her and sat up abruptly.
“What’s the matter? Who was that on the phone?”
Callie’s heart clutched at the mere sight of him, she loved him that much. His features were too angular to be handsome, but she loved the slash of mouth, the blade of nose, and the hint of rough, dark beard that made it necessary to shave again in the evening if he wanted to go out.
She captured the moment in her mind, knowing that whatever small chance had existed for a life with this man had ended with the phone call she had just received. Her gaze met the ice-blue eyes that had so frightened her the first time she had spoken to him. Ruthless eyes. Predatory eyes. She saw the growing concern in those eyes as she struggled to find words to tell him what had happened.
Speech was impossible.
“Who was that on the phone?” he demanded, muscles flexing in his shoulders and arms as he shoved himself toward her. “What the hell is wrong, Callie?”
Tears blurred her vision. Her hands clutched the bottom edge of the thigh-length T-shirt that was all she wore. “There’s b-been an accident. My b-brother Sam–” She broke down, unable to tell him the rest. She felt Trace’s strong arms close around her as he dragged her into his lap. “You’re trembling.” He pulled her close and held her snug and warm against his big body. “What happened? Is he dead?”
“No. Something m-much worse.”
“What could be worse–”
“He b-broke his neck. He won’t ever walk again. They d-don’t even know if he’ll live!”
“Damn. I’m so sorry, Callie.”
She clutched him around the neck, muffling her sobs against his throat.
She felt his big hands smoothing her hair, rubbing her back, a mute promise of support. But nothing could help now. She hadn’t told him the whole story. He had no idea of the depth of the disaster that had befallen them.
His voice rumbled in her ear. “Tell me what happened.”
Callie cried harder. Their whole world had just been turned upside down, that’s what had happened. It was a miracle they had found each other at all, in light of the ongoing feud between their families. She still found it hard to believe that they had become lovers. . .that they had fallen in love.
She had never let her gaze linger on Trace during high school, even though she found him attractive, and not just because he was senior and she was a freshman, or because his father’s South Texas ranch was ten times as large as her father’s. It was a simple case of having the wrong names. He was a Blackthorne and she was a Creed. Blackthornes and Creeds had hated each other since the Civil War, and the fight had never been more bitter than it was between Trace’s father and her own.
But the University of Texas at Austin campus was a long way from home. She’d been lost those first few days amongst such a huge college population, and even though Trace had been “the enemy,” he’d also been the only familiar face she’d seen. So she’d asked him for directions.
Callie shivered as she remembered how harsh his voice had sounded when he’d given them to her. She’d been surprised when Trace offered to show her the way. Amazed when he asked her to go out with him. Astonished at herself for saying yes.
She would never forget their first kiss. The memory was filled with sensations. The wind lifting the hair on his brow and tugging at the silk scarf holding her ponytail. The shifting shadows beyond the bright porch light at the front door to the dormitory. The rough bark of the live oak at her back, and the rustle of leaves above their heads. The quiver of expectation as his callused fingertips grazed her nape.
She had felt a shiver of fear as she braced for the unknown, and her gaze had lowered to focus on the third pearl snap on his Western shirt. She had felt his warm breath against her cheek, and finally, the exquisite softness of his mouth on hers and the certain knowledge that beneath his gentleness lay an urgency, a need, a desire so powerful it made her breach catch in her throat.
She had felt clumsy, because she hadn’t had much practice kissing. She had tentatively touched his shoulders and marveled at their strength, then held her breath, as she felt his arm slide around her waist and draw her tightly against the full length of an aroused male for the first time in her life.
She had blocked out all knowledge of who he was and who she was and lost herself in his kiss. He had teased her lips with his tongue seeking more, demanding more, and she had let him in, answering the thrust of his tongue with her own. Her body had squeezed up inside as though someone had pulled a lasso tight.
She had ignored the warning bell jangling deep inside, reminding her that this man was a Blackthorne and she was a Creed. She had clung to Trace, believing in her heart that they were meant to be together, two ragged halves of one perfect whole.
Even then it was too late to save her heart from breaking. It was his from the first moment he had asked for it eight months ago.
They had long since decided to defy their parents and get married when Trace graduated in May. They had planned to honeymoon over the summer in Australia, where they both had distant relatives. Only that wasn’t going to happen now. . .or likely ever.
“Callie, sweetheart, please. Tell me what happened. Let me help,” Trace murmured.
There was no sense putting it off any longer. Callie did her best to control the tears, but it was a losing battle. “Sam was at f-football practice after school. He leaped up for a pass and got hit really hard. When he came down, he f-fell wrong and b-broke his neck.”
She felt Trace’s arms tighten around her.
“I want to be there with you, Callie. At the hospital, I mean. I guess there was never going to be an easy way to let our families know we’re a couple. But I don’t want you to have to go through this alone. We might as well tell your father now that we don’t intend to let this insane feud of his with my dad separate us ever again.”
She shrugged herself free of his embrace and slid off his lap, staring at the sheet that was tangled around him. “You c-can’t come home with me, Trace.”
She stood and walked away, putting the first distance between them, then turned and spoke. “Your brother Owen was the one who tackled Sam. Your brother Owen was the one who broke his neck.”
She watched the color leach from Trace’s face before he met her gaze and said, “Sam getting hurt on the football field has nothing to do with us loving each other.”
He gripped the sheet in hands that had become fists. “It was an accident for Christ’s sake!”
“My father doesn’t think so.”
“He can’t believe Owen did it on purpose! Owen doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
“What words could I use to explain why I’ve brought you with me? What could I possibly say? `Oh, by the way, Daddy, I’m going to marry the brother of the man responsible for putting Sam in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. We can let bygones be bygones, can’t we?’ My father would throw me out and tell me never to come back.”
Trace rose, letting the sheet drop. “So? You can come live with me.”
His eyes asked her to give them a chance. His lips slowly curved into a cajoling smile.
Callie couldn’t take her eyes off him. She focused on the smile first, because he flashed it so seldom, and then on the powerful, rangy body that had given her so much pleasure. His frame was lean and ropey with muscle, his chest covered with black hair that narrowed into a single line of black down at his navel.
She forced her gaze upward and saw the anticipation in his eyes of her imminent surrender. She held a hand up, palm out, to stop him in place. “I can’t abandon my family, Trace. They need me.”
“I need you, too.”
“Not as much as they do.”
She saw the flare of hurt in his eyes before he reached for his Jockey shorts and jeans. “You either love me or you don’t!” he said, stuffing his legs into worn Levi’s and buttoning them up. He snatched a Texas Longhorns T-shirt off the floor and tugged it down over his head. “Which is it?” She stared at him in disbelief. “You know I do! But surely you can understand–”
“I understand our fathers have made it impossible for us to live our lives the way we want,” he said, yanking on Nikes and tying knots with fists that looked ready to strangle flesh. “I’m done playing their games. I’m leaving the States in May, with or without you.”
She took a step toward him. “If you could just wait–”
“One year? Two?” He shoved a hand through his dark hair to get it out of his eyes. “How long before someone else in my family offends or embarrasses–or cripples–someone else in yours? Or vice versa? That goddamned feud is never going to end! The best thing for us to do is to start a new life away from all of them.”
“I love my parents and my brothers and sister. I don’t want to be separated from them forever.”
“Not even if it’s the only way we can be together?” He crossed the room in two strides and grabbed her by the arms. She could feel the desperation in his grasp, see it in his eyes as they bored into hers, hear it in his panting breaths. “I love you, Callie. I want to spend my life with you. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
“You’re being unreasonable,” she argued.
His arms suddenly folded around her, and he nestled his nose against her throat. She could feel the effort it took for him to gentle his strength. His powerful hands caressed her with infinite care. “Callie,” he murmured in her ear. “I need you. Let me go home with you. We can make your father understand. Give us a chance, sweetheart. Please.”
Callie closed her eyes and bit her lower lip to keep from agreeing. Trace had rarely asked her for anything. This request was especially difficult to refuse, with Trace holding her so tenderly in his arms, reminding her of what she would be giving up if she forced him out of her life. His lips moved across her throat, leaving a trail of lingering pleasure. he made a carnal sound, as he molded their bodies together. Callie felt herself responding to the raw animal heat that had never failed to excite her. In a moment, it would be too late to escape without causing both of them more pain.
“Trace, no. Stop.” She shoved at his chest with the heels of her hands. When he lifted his head, she met his wary gaze and said, “I can’t. I’m sorry. It’s over.”
He let her go abruptly and took a step back. She rubbed her arms, holding herself tightly as she watched the dawning realization in his eyes of what she had known since she’d let the phone drop back into the cradle. They were not going to live happily ever after.
There were things she could say that would make Trace stay with her, but there was no hope that anytime in the near future her father would welcome a Blackthorne across his threshold. So what was the point?
“I love you, Trace,” she said sadly.
“Just not enough to defy your father and marry me,” Trace replied bitterly. “I should have known better than to get involved with a Creed. My father always said you couldn’t be trusted. What about the promises you made to me, Callie? Were those all a bunch of lies?”
Callie’s stomach clenched. “Please, Trace. You’re angry and upset right now because we can’t be together, but–”
“You’re the one pushing me away, Callie. You’re the one afraid to take a chance. Remember that. Because I won’t come crawling back.” Callie felt the acid rising in her throat. …Not now. Oh, God. Not now… Trace grabbed his canvas backpack on the way to the door. “I don’t have to get my teeth kicked in more than once to learn my lesson. I’m out of here.”
The door slammed, and she was alone. Not quite alone. She let her hand rest on the small mound below her waist. She swallowed several times, but it was a losing battle. Callie raced for the bathroom. Afterward, she pressed a cool, damp washcloth against her mouth as she stared at herself in the mirror. Eighteen and pregnant. And unmarried. …You should have told him…
I will. Someday. If he ever comes back.
© 1999 by Joan Johnston