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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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The Texas Lawman's Woman

Shelley Meyerson's heart leaped as she caught sight of the broad-shouldered lawman walking out of the dressing room. She blinked, so shocked she nearly fell off the pedestal. "He's the best man?"

Colt McCabe locked eyes with Shelley, looking about as pleased as she felt. His chiseled jaw clenched. "Don't tell me she's the maid of honor!"

"Now, now, you two," their mutual friend, wedding planner Patricia Wilson, scolded, checking out the fit of Shelley's yellow, silk bridesmaid dress. "Surely you can get along for a few days. After all, you're going to have to…since you're both living in Laramie County again."

Don't remind me, Shelley thought with a dramatic sigh.

Looking as handsome as ever in a black tuxedo and pleated white shirt, Colt sized Shelley up. "She's never going to forgive me."

For good reason, Shelley mused, remembering the hurt and humiliation she had suffered as if it were yesterday. She whirled toward Colt so quickly the seamstress stabbed her with a pin. But the pain in her ribs was nothing compared to the pain in her heart. She lifted up her skirt, revealing her favorite pair of cranberry-red cowgirl boots, and stomped down off the pedestal, not stopping until they were toe-to-toe. "You stood me up on prom night, you big galoot!"

Lips thinning, the big, strapping lawman rocked forward on the toes of his boots. "I got there."

Yes, he certainly had, Shelley thought, staring at the enticing contours of his broad muscular chest. And even that had been the stuff of Laramie, Texas legend. The town had talked about it for weeks and weeks. "Two hours late. Unshowered. Unshaven." Shelley threw up her hands in exasperation. "No flowers. No tuxedo."

Because if he had looked then the way he looked now… Well, who knew what would have happened? Certainly they would have followed through on their secret, incredibly romantic plans. Instead, she'd spent the evening alone, crying her eyes out into her pillow, the gorgeous dress and silky lingerie she'd spent weeks picking out crumpled beneath her.

Colt stepped nearer, inundating her with the smell of soap and cologne and the intoxicatingly familiar essence that was him. "I told you where I'd been," he reminded quietly.

That night, and many days after.

Shelley glared up at him, crushed all over again. "With Buddy."

Colt stood, legs braced apart, hands on his waist. To her fury, he was no more apologetic now than he had been then. "He needed me, Shelley."

I needed you.

"Right," Shelley retorted with a cool indifference that belied the emotion churning inside her. "So you said, Colt. Many times."

When was she going to get over this? Over him? Shelley had thought she was. Until the moment they came face-to-face again. Then, it was as if no time at all had passed. As if they were still as deeply in love as she'd once dreamed them to be.

But maybe it would be best if she did just forget it all and move on. Otherwise, her heart would remain broken forever. At least when it came to her sexy former boyfriend.

Colt shoved a hand through his short, dark brown hair, and turned back to the wedding planner. "This isn't going to work."

Patricia stepped between them. "The heck it isn't. Kendall and Gerry chose the two of you to be maid of honor and best man, so you're both going to suck it up and get along until the nuptials are over. Got it? The bride and groom have been through enough."

That was certainly true. Like Colt, Gerry had grown up wanting to help others. Gerry had become a navy medic and saved many lives, until he'd been injured in an accident on an aircraft carrier and spent the past six months recuperating in a series of military hospitals. Now, finally, he was well enough to return to active duty. After all they'd been through together, it had been the happiest day of both their lives when he'd asked Kendall to marry him. But a long engagement was not in the cards for them because they only had thirty days to pack up, marry and honeymoon before they headed for his next assignment in San Diego.

Hence, their wedding was being put together with lightning speed, with preparations starting before the two lovebirds even hit town.

"This isn't about you." Patricia guided Shelley back up on the pedestal, so the seamstress could continue the fitting. "It's about making the bride and groom happy. Now, I know you haven't been back in town all that long, Shelley—"

"Four days, six hours and twenty-two minutes," Colt interrupted in a bored tone, "if anyone is counting."

Shelley looked at him, not surprised he had been clocking the time, much as she had. It had been hard as heck, trying to steer clear of him during the move-in process, but she had. Until now, anyway.

He shrugged, obviously relishing the fact he could still get under her skin. "Laramie's not that big." He flexed his shoulders restlessly, then narrowed his midnight-blue eyes. "I figured we would run into each other eventually."

Another silence fell. This one even more telling.

Once more, Patricia stepped between them. "This is what we're going to do. We're going to get both of you fitted for your wedding finery, and then the two of you are going to go out somewhere." She lifted a hand to cut off their heated protests. "I don't care where. And you're going to sit down together and broker some sort of truce so that none of your past angst taints the upcoming wedding in any way."

Shelley knew the wedding planner was right. She had returned to Laramie to inhabit the house where she had grown up. Colt was living just down the street in a house he had bought. In a county of ten thousand people, Shelley knew there was no way they'd be able to avoid each other indefinitely. Maybe it was time she and Colt acted like the grown-ups they were now instead of the love struck teenagers they had once been, and buried the hatchet for good.

From the look of consternation that crossed Colt's face, she could tell that the handsome bachelor seemed similarly chastened.

Fifteen minutes later, their chores as attendants done, they walked out of the Lockhart Bridal Salon on Main Street. Just after six, the sun was sinking slowly toward the horizon in the bright blue Texas sky. The unseasonably cool June day had the temperature in the low eighties. There was very low humidity and a nice breeze. "So where do you want to go?" Colt asked Shelley.

With the clock running and her cash dwindling, there was little choice about that. "My place," she said.

Colt reacted as if she had just invited him over to see her etchings. Shelley put an end to that notion with an unsentimental glance. Their days of even thinking about hooking up were over. "I've got to go home," she said flatly. She had responsibilities to tend.

Colt lifted a brow and warned, "You should know…I've got Buddy with me."

She stopped as they reached his blue Ford pickup truck. All four windows of the extended cab were down. A beautiful brown, white and black Bernese mountain dog was sitting in the front seat. These days, there was more white on the canine's face than either brown or black. "I can see that." Shelley stared at the dog that had inadvertently crushed her dreams and been Colt's constant companion for the past twelve-plus years. The big fluffy-haired pet was still as friendly and alert as ever.

And he still brought a flood of resentment to her heart.

Buddy looked at Shelley as if he remembered her. And her attitude. Yet he still wanted to be her friend. She pushed her guilt away. That dog, and the nonstop chaos he had caused, was just as responsible for her breakup with Colt as Colt was. She had to remember that. The look on his face, the one that always set her heart to racing, said he surely did.

"I can take him home first," he offered.

That, Shelley knew, would just delay the inevitable, because Colt and Buddy were practically inseparable—and she might as well come to terms with that. "No," she replied with a resigned sigh. "Bring him."

"You're sure?" Colt asked.

Shelley shrugged. She could do this. She knew she could. "If we're going to be living just a few houses away, you and I are going to have to make peace with the past. And I have to make friends with your dog, too." She had to get to the point where Buddy was just another dog, instead of the love who had stolen Colt's heart.

"Then I'll see you in five," he promised.

Colt watched as Shelley got into the aging red Prius she had inherited from her parents and led the way over to Spring Street. The big yellow-and-white Victorian was the same as it had been when her parents were alive. A century old, it had a covered porch that wrapped around the entire house.

A porch swing stood sentry to the right of the front door.

It was—and had been—the perfect place to see everything that happened up and down the shady, tree-lined street. It had also been the perfect place for snuggling. Colt and Shelley had logged a lot of hours on that swing when they were dating. Just looking at it brought back a flood of memories.

Of course, she'd logged a lot of hours on it after they had broken up, too, as she'd sat there, swinging and fuming. And even more after he'd had the gall to tell her in no uncertain terms what he thought of the man she was marrying. Not that he'd been any better at picking a mate. He had yet to find the right woman.

Exhaling in frustration, Colt got out and went around to the passenger side. He opened the door, grabbed the leash on the floor and snapped it onto Buddy's collar.

Buddy was still staring at Shelley as if trying to figure her out, too. Colt petted his dog on the head. "I know she's pretty," he said softly. "But she doesn't like dogs."

The pooch looked at Colt seriously.

"Yeah, well." Colt shook his head. "I know. Hard to believe. But it's true. So you be on your best behavior, fella," he told his dog sternly. "We don't want her adding to her already gigantic grudge against us."

Buddy's days of enthusiastically jumping down from the cab were long over. Colt lifted his eighty-five-pound companion on the grass next to the curb, then waited while Buddy lifted a leg.

Meanwhile, Shelley hurried toward the front door. "You can wait on the porch," she said over her shoulder.

A minute and a half later, a high school girl came out, pocketing cash. Shelley followed, a good-looking toddler in her arms.

Colt couldn't help but stare. He had always been attracted to Shelley, even when they were at war with each other. It would have been impossible not to be, given her cloud of soft shoulder-length auburn hair and her fathomless pine-green eyes. But seeing Shelley hold the child so tenderly put her in a whole new light. This was a maternal side of her that he hadn't anticipated. And found just as appealing as her inherent femininity and lithe dancer's body. She was, and always had been, the woman he most wanted to bed. That hadn't changed, either.

Oblivious to the direction of his thoughts, Shelley smiled for the first time since they'd set eyes on each other again. "Colt, meet my son, Austin. He's two."

Colt noted her little boy had the same auburn hair, appealing face and dark green eyes as his mother. Able to see why Shelley was so proud—the little tyke was as cute as could be, and intelligent, too—Colt extended his hand to the little boy.

Austin clasped the hand-carved red wooden truck in his hand that Colt knew was three generations old. He recalled seeing it when he had been dating Shelley years ago. The antique toy had been saved for her first child. At the time, because he and Shelley had been in the grip of a fierce teenage romance, everyone thought that Colt might be the daddy to that baby.

It hadn't turned out that way, however.

Shelley's son turned his head and buried it in Shelley's shoulder. The action shifted the scooped neckline of her T-shirt, baring a hint of lace and silky smooth skin. Noticing, Colt felt himself stir.

Not good. Not good at all. The last thing they needed was their former chemistry sparking to life. The two of them were just too different. He hadn't ever completely thawed her in the past.

He sure wasn't going to do it now.

Her son was much more welcoming. The little boy proudly showed Colt his truck and said, "Mine. My truck."

"It sure is your truck," he agreed.

Satisfied that Colt understood the import of what he was holding, Austin turned back to Shelley. "Down, Momma. Want down."

Shelley looked at Buddy, who was sitting next to where Colt was standing in a perfect sit-stay.

Although it wasn't necessary, Colt took his dog over to a cushioned wicker chair that had also been there for years. He pointed to the section of the porch beside it, and Buddy obediently lay down. Paws stretched out in front of them, he waited.

Colt sat down next to Buddy, and then Shelley set her son on the other end of the wide front porch.

Oblivious to the tension between the adults, Austin walked over to a wicker basket full of toys. He pulled a wooden cube from the pile, opened the lid and dumped the shaped blocks out onto the painted floor. Grinning, he plopped down beside it, shut the lid and began fitting a piece into the similarly shaped slots, while Shelley looked on happily.

"I hear you are going to be teaching dance classes at the community center full-time now," Colt said.

Shelley smiled. "Classes start tomorrow afternoon."

Colt recalled her on the dance line for the marching band, in that short skirt, skimpier top and boots. She'd been the captain of the group, and man, she had been able to move—to the point that no one could take their eyes off her. Especially him. Not that he needed to be remembering that.

"I hear you're in law enforcement."

Colt nodded. "I'm a deputy with the sheriff's department."

Shelley shook her head, clearly perplexed. "I never thought you'd go through with that."

"Why not?" Colt returned, holding her gaze.

She lifted her slender shoulder in an elegant shrug. "You were never the hall monitor type."

The truth was, he did have the softest heart in the department. But not about to admit that, Colt pointed out instead, "You said you always wanted to be rich and live in the big city…yet here you are, back in Laramie, moving into the house you grew up in."

A mixture of regret and disappointment flickered across her face. "I guess that's what the saying 'Life happens while you are making other plans' means."

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Cathy Gillen Thacker is the bestselling author of witty romantic comedies and warm, family stories whose books are published in 17 languages and 35 countries.