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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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The Texas Rancher's Vow

"I know what he said, but it's not your artistic talent that my father is interested in."

Jen stared the unexpected visitor to her Austin gallery. Matt Briscoe was six foot four inches of incredibly determined, swaggering cowboy. As well as handsome to a fault.

Knowing it would irritate him as much as he had already irritated her, she let her glance drift slowly over his ruggedly chiseled face to his thatch of curly black hair. It was cut short in a way that wouldn't require much maintenance. His beard was another matter. He had the kind of dark, dangerous-looking scruff that never totally disappeared no matter how closely he shaved. The kind that made her suspect the man just oozed testosterone. In bed. And out. "And you know this because…?" Jen prodded.

Eyes the color of the Texas summer sky zeroed in on hers. Lingered. Just long enough to get her pulse racing in a way she most definitely did not like.

The corner of his sensual mouth lifting slightly, Matt Briscoe continued brusquely, "In the past ten years Emmett's married—and divorced—a novelist, a violinist and an actress."

Okay, so that not only wasn't a good personal track record to have, it didn't portend well for her future dealings with the wealthy Texas cattleman.

On the other hand, Jen reminded herself, Emmett Briscoe hadn't been hitting on her—or even flirting with her—when he had made the appointment.

On the phone, Matt's sixty-year-old father had been all business, and perfectly polite.

Unlike the blunt-to-a-fault younger man standing in front of her.

Jen took a calming breath and forced herself to look around the small but respectable gallery she had leased to display her work.

She was a sculptress—and a darn fine one at that—whether Matt Briscoe chose to acknowledge it or not. So she wasn't going to let him, or anyone else in his blue-blooded, Texas ranching class disparage her.

"This leads you to believe that your father would now turn to a practitioner of the visual arts—for female company?"

Matt flinched. Her assumption had clearly struck a nerve. "For more reasons than you could possibly understand," he retorted gruffly. "Yes. It does."

He really thought her a gold digger?

Jen folded her arms beneath her breasts. "Well, you'll be happy to know, Matt Briscoe, that I am not looking for a sugar daddy."

He rested his hands on his hips, pushing back the edges of his lightweight summer sport coat, then rocked forward on the toes of his expensive, hand-tooled leather boots. "It wouldn't start out that way."

Unable to take the raw masculine intensity of his gaze, Jen focused her attention on the strong column of his suntanned throat, visible in the open collar of his pale blue dress shirt.

Damn, he smelled good. Outdoorsy and brisk and male. Not that she should be noticing, she thought firmly.

Indignantly, she forced her glance upward and continued as if he hadn't spoken, "Nor am I looking to get married again. Ever."

His gaze meshed with hers. Something that might have been empathy appeared all too briefly in his expression. "So you've been.?"

"Divorced." Old bitterness welled inside her, filling her heart, keeping the force field of independence up and running. "Yes." Jen nodded. She wasn't ashamed, just regretful. "I have."

Matt inclined his head, murmured conversationally, "Then you understand how difficult it can be to end something that never should have begun."

He was so close. Too close. Her heart skipped another beat.

She stepped back a pace. "I do."

"So do I," he returned softly, as if that fact somehow bonded them. Put them on the same page. With the same goals and values.

But she and Matt—and his very wealthy father—weren't joined in anything, Jen reminded herself sternly.

Any more than she and her ex and his family had ever been.

Yes, there had been instances of closeness. Moments when she had hoped—even imagined—that everything would turn out all right. Only to find out that Dex had an agenda of his own that left her in the dust. Not to mention disgraced and completely heartbroken.

Never again, Jen had vowed, would she allow herself to be used as a pawn between a wealthy scion and his family.

That was truer now than ever. As was her goal of wanting her own financial stability.

Determined to let Matt Briscoe know where he stood with her, she smirked. "Now why doesn't it surprise me that you're a veteran of divorce, too?" She stepped away and snapped her fingers. "Oh, I've got it. Your outright charm."

He remained motionless, his expression a blank slate.

Jen noticed he neither claimed nor disavowed what she had just alleged. Which meant what? He was single? Involved? It certainly didn't look as if he was married, since he wasn't wearing a wedding ring.

"I'm trying to be forthright with you—in a way my dad likely won't be, at least not in the beginning," Matt said gruffly.

His words had the ring of truth, but it made them no less offensive and overbearing. Jen stepped closer once again and dropped her voice a notch. "What you're trying to do, Matt Briscoe, is intimidate me for your own reasons." Something else she was oh too familiar with… The alleged "good guy" who was at heart a selfish jerk.

Jaw hardening, he shook his head. "Let's just cut to the chase, shall we? I'll double whatever he's offering for you if you don't show up."

Matt really thought he could buy her off? Jen's temper flared. He wasn't the first—although she really wished he would be the last—to make that mistake. "Well, that's an expensive proposition," she drawled.

He pulled a checkbook from the inside pocket of his jacket.

Incensed that he assumed she was that easy, Jen glared at him. "Save your cash, cowboy."

"Sure about that?" he taunted, wielding a pen. "It's a one-time-only offer."

Jen was finished being polite, too. "And one I don't intend to take."

Footsteps sounded behind them.

"Trouble here?" a low voice rumbled.

Cy and Celia were suddenly at her side.

Jen stepped between her coworkers, aware that they were ready to kick butt on her behalf. Of course, it would have been ludicrous if the married couple had tried. Cy was almost a full foot shorter than their interloper. Celia was even more petite and only days away from delivering their first child.

Jen held up a hand, staving off any further intervention on her behalf. "There's no trouble, Cy," she said quietly, her eyes still on the ruggedly handsome rancher standing before her. "Mr. Briscoe was just leaving."

Matt remained where he was.

Cy glowered. "You heard the lady."

Matt dug in his heels. "I'm not going to let you hurt my father."

"And I'm not going to let you tell me what I can or cannot do." Jen opened the gallery door, grasped his elbow and pushed him through. Then she shut the door behind him, locked it and flipped the sign to Closed.

Matt's lips thinned. He shook his head at her through the glass, then stalked off down the street.

"Wow," Celia said, moving to the window to stare after him. "I wasn't expecting that."

Shaking off the dark mood that had descended, Jen ran a trembling hand through her hair and quipped, "Never a dull moment in my life, that's for sure."

"You feeling okay?"

Jen surveyed her friend's petite, pregnant form. Was it her imagination or had the baby dropped another couple inches in the last day? "Fine. It's you I'm worried about." She led them upstairs to her studio.

"Celia is right," Cy said. "I don't think it's a good idea to meet with the senior Briscoe."

All three of them congregated around the works in progress. Jen was just finishing up a bust of the mayor, slated for city hall. Cy was making the molds for her work, as well as the dozens of baby shoes that would be bronzed at the foundry. Celia also played an integral role in the business, scheduling all the appointments and keeping the books.

"He said on the phone he wants to commission several bronzes. That's a lot of money we could all use." Maybe if they had enough coming in, they could ease out of the baby-paraphernalia-bronzing work that currently underwrote the operating costs of the gallery and the studio, as well as all their salaries.

Cy shook his head. He removed his apron and hung it up next to his own workstation. "We'll find another way to bump up profits and bring in income, Jen."

Easier said than done, when my career as an artist is just beginning to take off. Besides… She folded her arms again. "I don't care how inhospitable Matt Briscoe was. I'm not letting that audacious cowboy scare me off."

Celia ran a hand over her swollen tummy. "Jen."

Jen shook her head, refusing the advice. "You two worry about your baby. I'll worry about me."

"Almost there?" Celia asked Jen late the next day.

Jen pressed her cell phone closer to her ear. "I can see the entrance to the Triple B Ranch from where I'm standing." The fifty-thousand-acre ranch was located on the far western edge of Laramie County. Hundreds of black Angus cattle grazed sedately in the rolling green pastures, for as far as the eye could see.

"How is the radiator holding out?"

Jen took the clear plastic jug out of her aging white utility van, pulled on an insulated leather work glove and walked over to lift the hood.

"Okay." Considering I've just driven two hundred miles in a little over four hours. "I've been stopping every hour or so to add water." Carefully, she unscrewed the top. Steam rose, dissipating quickly in the hot, dry summer air.

"I wish you would just get it fixed," Celia fretted.

Jen frowned at the sight of a horseman breaking away from a group of cowboys. He was headed her way. She turned back to the radiator and dumped another pint into the opening. "I will, as soon as finances allow." Finished, she set the jug on the ground, replaced the top and then shut the hood. "Listen, I've got to go." She walked back to put the water in the van.

"Call us later. Let us know how it goes."

"Promise." Jen ended the call and slipped her cell phone in the pocket of her skirt.

"Trouble?" Dismounting with easy grace, Matt Bris-coe inclined his head at the engine.

Jen watched one of the other cowboys come forward and take the reins from him, then he rode back to the herd they'd been tending, with Matt's horse in tow.

Great. Now she was stuck with him.

"Nope.I'm fine."

Matt adjusted the brim of his straw hat. "I was hoping you'd take my advice."

Someone else had said that to her once, and the situation had not ended happily.

The only difference now was that she was a lot better equipped to handle the inevitable criticism doubtlessly coming her way.

Her gut tightening, Jen slammed the cargo door with unnecessary force and gave him a challenging look.

"You're going to regret this," he predicted.

For reasons that had little to do with the man she was supposed to meet—and everything to do with the one in front of her—Jen already did.

Determined to get what she wanted out of this arrangement, she bantered back. "I think I can handle whatever comes my way." Including you.

The Legends of Laramie County by Cathy Gillen Thacker

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.