I was stumbling down a country road and couldn't remember a thing—not even my name. Luckily, Louanne Brown, the most beautiful woman in Texas, found me—and thanks to her, I'm starting to remember everything, including how to love again.
Handsome, intelligent and passionate, Rowan reminded me of the life I'd once had—and the promise it held. But I knew a man like him before, and that romance had only left me looking over my shoulder. I'd love to find a peaceful life for myself and my baby son, Noah.... Can Rowan be the one I've been waiting for?
"Want some company?"
Rowan Parks looked up from his long-necked bottle of beer and caught the appreciative smile of a bleached-blond cowgirl in a red, low-cut blouse that threatened to pop a button if she took a deep breath.
"Afraid not." He motioned for the waitress, indicating he wanted to close out his tab and get on his way to nowhere in particular.
The blonde took a seat across from him anyway, put her elbows on the table and leaned forward. "My name's Charlene."
Rowan didn't respond. Women often sidled up to him in a bar with the intention of warming his bed. But sex was the furthest thing from his mind this evening.
And so was company.
"What's your name?" she asked, not at all put off by his silence.
Rowan wasn't up for this. He'd been stewing in his anger and his grief for days. And he wasn't ready for a change of mood. Nor was he willing to knock off the chip that weighed heavily upon his shoulder.
It felt too damn good to be miserable. Especially in a seedy little hole-in-the-wall like this.
Brenda Wheeler, his father's housekeeper and the woman who'd raised him and his siblings, had always made a big deal about being courteous. Polite.
But Rowan couldn't see any point in being honest. He glanced at the wood-paneled room, caught a whiff of stale beer and tobacco. Listened as an old country western song boomed from a red-and-chrome jukebox—Hank Williams at his best.
The tune wafted through the air like a curl of cigarette smoke, giving Rowan a quick and easy pseudonym. "My name is Hank."
Her blue eyes lit up, and she smiled, revealing a chipped front tooth. "Hank? No kidding? Just like the singer?"
He nodded, wishing the waitress would hurry up. The Watering Hole had been nearly empty when he'd first parked his Harley outside, trudged up the graveled walk and took a seat in the far corner, hoping to quench his thirst and wash the dust from his throat. But as more and more locals began to fill the wooden tables and red-vinyl corner booths, their laughter and Southern twangs played havoc with his sullen mood.
The blonde, Charlene, glanced at the diamond stud he wore in one ear, the platinum Rolex on his wrist, then studied his face with a good deal more interest than he wanted to cultivate.
"You're not from around here, are you?
She had that right.
Rowan was as out of place in this Texas honky-tonk as he'd always been in the San Francisco mansion in which he'd grown up. But he didn't see any reason to comment. He wasn't into chitchat. Or revelations of his hell-bent flight to anonymity and peace.
When the waitress brought his check, he reached into his jeans pocket, pulled out a roll of cash wrapped in a rubber band, withdrew a twenty-dollar bill and set it on the brown Formica tabletop.
"Things really get hoppin' around here on Friday nights," Charlene said, offering him a friendly grin. "And the band will be settin' up pretty soon."
Rowan wasn't interested in boot scootin' or two-steppin', and the only mood music he felt like listening to was the blues. But something told him he wouldn't find a darkened jazz club out in the sticks.
"The band is really good. In fact, they've even had gigs in Austin. I know, 'cause my brother plays steel guitar." She tried to urge a smile from him, but it didn't work. "You're not going to up and walk away, are you?"
That's exactly what he was going to do. And it was exactly what he'd done a couple of days ago—he'd walked away for good. And right now he only wanted to be left alone.
"Has anyone ever said that you look like Antonio Banderas?" she asked, apparently not giving up. Not used to being ignored.
Blessed with black hair, deep-set dimples and blue eyes, Rowan was the only one in the whole family to inherit his mother's ability to stop people in their tracks because of his good looks.
It had been a double-edged sword, though, since he'd had a feeling it was his physical resemblance to his mother that caused his father to shun him.
"I like the look of a five o'clock shadow on a man," Charlene said. "It makes y'all look kind of dangerous and sexy."
And rebellious, Rowan supposed. His refusal to shave everyday had really irritated his old man. So had his troublemaking. But at least his rebellion had finally finagled a reaction out of his father.
You ungrateful bastard. Why can't you be more like your brother, Cade?
And less like your mother, Rowan had always internally supplied.
Was that what made his dad ignore him? The fact that Rowan looked like the woman his father had committed to a sanitarium in Switzerland?
Or had the jewelry baron merely found Rowan lacking?
Either way, as the black sheep of the family, Rowan had done everything he could to rebel against his father, a man who'd shown his ruthless side one time too many.
And now Rowan was out to shed his roots and prove himself. He'd never been one to pretend to be something he wasn't, to follow the crowd or to blend into the woodwork. But the problem was, he'd been keeping his pain and his dreams a secret for so long, that even he wasn't sure who he really was.
"Cat got your tongue?" Charlene asked.
"I'm just passing through. And as pretty as you are, Charlene, I'm not in the mood for conversation." He slid her a half smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Thanks for the company."
Then he sauntered out of the bar with his helmet under his arm. But instead of wearing it, he strapped it to the side of the bike, revved the engine and sped away, letting the wind blow through his hair and hoping it would clear his mind, his heart. His soul.
The Harley kicked up dust as Rowan raced down a country road. He had no idea where he was heading, other than as far away from the mighty Parks Empire as he could get. He'd been riding aimlessly for days, hoping to find some peace—away from the spider of a man who tried to keep his family and everyone else within his web of control.
Having made only brief, overnight stops from his trek, Rowan had grown tired of the reckless pace and decided to find a decent place to spend the night.
Where the hell was the interstate? He would need to head toward Austin to find something more than a run-down motel with a surging neon light that advertised Vacancy.
As the bike picked up speed, a jackrabbit dashed across the road, a coyote on its tail. Rowan swerved to avoid the mangy dog-like critter, and the Harley skidded into a deep gully that ran along an expansive string of worn-out barbwire fence.
When the bike hit the ditch, it bucked like a mechanical bull, throwing Rowan into the air.
He expected the raw pain upon impact, as flesh and bone met dirt, rocks and fencing. Even getting the wind knocked out of his chest hadn't really surprised him.
But he hadn't anticipated a fade to black.
Louanne Brown hated the Lazy B Ranch—always had and always would. But as fate would have it, the place she'd always been ashamed of had become a miracle when she'd needed it most.
Still, the never-ending chores began before dawn and continued nonstop until after supper. And at night, when she finally slipped between the clean but worn sheets of the hundred-year-old bed that had once belonged to her parents, she collapsed into an exhausted, bone-weary slumber.
Yet in spite of the calluses, the chapped hands and reddened knuckles, she whispered a prayer of thanksgiving that she and her sister hadn't put the ranch on the market after her folks died. And that Pete and Aggie Robertson had agreed to stay on, even though they'd reached retirement age.
The older couple had lived on the ranch for nearly as long as Louanne could remember and had become more than the foreman and his wife. They were surrogate grandparents to her son and friends to her. Friends who didn't pry. They'd noticed that she'd cloistered herself on the property, but hadn't said too much about it.
As the white, beat-up Ford pickup bounced along the potholes in the country road that surrounded the cattle ranch, she squinted in the late morning sunlight, her arm resting along the window of the passenger side. She'd been up since before daybreak, fixed a hearty breakfast for herself and given Noah a morning bottle before taking him to Aggie, who would care for the baby until Louanne came in for the noon meal.
"Here's that stretch of fence that needs mending," Pete said, from behind the wheel. "We really need to replace the whole blasted thing."
Imagine that. Every time Louanne turned around, she was met with one expense or another. "It's an ongoing battle to stay on top, isn't it?"
Pete nodded and clicked his tongue. "Sure seems that way."
Louanne didn't respond. She didn't need to. Money had always been tight, more so now than ever. And there was no way they could splurge on something that major, no matter how sound the investment.
"Well, I'll be go-to-hell." Pete pointed to the northwest. "Look over there."
Louanne, following his direction, spotted a dark-haired man wandering along the road, dazed and battered. "He's hurt, Pete. Pull over."
When the pickup stopped, Louanne opened the door and slid out the passenger side. But before either of them could reach the wounded stranger, he crumpled to the ground.
His hair was caked in dried blood, probably coming from the gash near his temple. A dirty, white T-shirt bore blood spatters, and faded jeans sported a frayed rip in the knee.
A single diamond earring and a heavily bristled beard made him look like a rock musician or maybe an artist—just the kind of guy her sister Lula would date.
"Mister?" Louanne asked. "Are you all right?"
He didn't respond.
Was he unconscious? Or just drifting in and out?
She knelt and checked for a pulse, found it beating strong and steady.
Pete stood to the side, blocking the sun and casting a shadow on the man. "Maybe we ought to take him back to the ranch, then call an ambulance."
The stranger opened his eyes—blue as the summer sky— and shook his head. "No ambulance...no hospital. I'm...okay."
Louanne didn't believe him. He was obviously hurt. So why didn't he want medical treatment? Was he trying to avoid attention and steer clear of town, too?
Was he running from someone? Hiding out?
Like she was?
She decided to honor his request—if possible.
"Are you able to climb in the back of the truck?" Pete asked him.
The man nodded, then slowly got to his feet. His knees seemed to buckle, so Pete and Louanne stood at his side to offer their support.
She supposed she ought to be worried about taking the battered stranger back to the house, but for some reason, she wasn't. Maybe because he appeared to be such an interesting contradiction. The kind of character who would fit nicely into the novel she'd been writing.
A handsome but rugged stranger.
Dangerous and vulnerable.
A hellion with angel eyes.
Even the clothes and accessories he wore mocked one another—the expensive platinum Rolex, faded denim jeans torn at the knee and dusty, leather boots that must have cost a pretty penny.
Of course, looks could be deceiving. Louanne had learned that the hard way. Still, she couldn't very well leave the injured stranger to the elements.
"Be careful," she told Pete, as they helped him into the back of the pickup. Once he was sprawled out on the dirty, work-worn, metal bed, Louanne climbed in beside him.
On the bumpy ride back to the house, the man opened his eyes and searched her face. "What happened?"
"I was going to ask you the same thing." She mustered a smile, trying hard not to lose herself in his deep blue gaze. She had a feeling many women found it hard not to stare when he was clean and freshly shaven. In fact, she had a hard time keeping her eyes from settling on the angular jaw, the bristled cheeks. The spike of thick, black lashes seen only in a mascara commercial.
"Where am I?" he asked.
"At a ranch in Pebble Creek."
He grimaced, furrowing his brow—a near perfect brow, except for an old scar that tweaked his left eyebrow. He'd have another scar now. Higher. Near the temple. "Pebble Creek? Where the hell is that?"
"About an hour or two from Austin."
He snagged her gaze with those baby blues, then reached out his hand and caught her wrist. "I'm glad you found me."
The warmth of his touch stirred up a flutter in her stomach, a reaction she hadn't had in nearly two years and hadn't expected to ever have again.