THEIR TEXAS TRIPLETS
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Cooper Maitland’s low, teasing voice drifted through the sweet summer air.
Jillian Lockhart paused, one leg over the sill of her open bedroom window. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised to see the ruggedly handsome cowboy loitering in the shadows beneath. Every time she turned around lately the sexy, young cowboy was there. Working. Observing. Doing whatever he could to get under her skin. And given how much he had shown up in her dreams lately, it didn’t take much…
Every time she was near him she wondered what it would be like to be held in his arms. To allow him to steal a dance. Or maybe even a kiss…
Not that it was ever going to happen.
Know-it-alls like Cooper were not her type.
And besides, she had a boyfriend.
One who was way older and more sophisticated than the down-to-earth hired hand haunting her dreams.
Resting one foot on the roof of the porch, she reached inside to pull out a canvas duffel bag and toss it to the ground beneath. It landed in the grass with a low thud. And was followed by the backpack containing her ID, birth certificate and phone.
“I mean it, darlin’. This isn’t smart. Not at all.”
Ha! She slanted him a haughty glance, her pulse already racing. And she wasn’t even near him yet. “Like you would know!”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” He pushed the brim of his hat back to better survey her. “And I still wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he warned, even more critically.
She lifted a brow. “It’s a good thing you aren’t me, then,” she called back softly.
And an even better thing that she didn’t have time to stand there trading insults with him.
She tested the rope ladder she had strung from her bed to the ground. Satisfied it was still tight, she stepped all the way out onto the roof, closed the window as much as she could, and then climbed to the ground below.
Finished, Jillian turned back to him. He was still looking at her with those incredible sable brown eyes. Her heart racing, she moved closer, determined to show him she wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with him.
“Because if you were me, then you’d have a big, snooping family always sticking their nose into your business and telling you what to do!”
His grin widening, he surveyed her indignant expression. His intuitive eyes lassoed hers. “Or not do?”
She did her best to stifle a sigh while stubbornly holding her ground. She wished he didn’t radiate such endless masculine energy, or look so hot in a black T-shirt and jeans. “My personal life is none of their business!” she complained, wondering if he really was going to mess up her plans.
He shrugged. Sweeping off his Stetson, and shoving a hand through the rumpled strands of his dark brown hair, he frowned and settled his hat squarely back on his head. “They care about you.”
“Yeah, well…” She loved them, too. It didn’t mean they were right about Chip Harcourt being too old for her. Age was irrelevant when it came to kismet. And they were definitely a couple who was meant to be together. They had both known that, from the very first time they had met. Beneath the shimmering canopy of a star-filled Texas night….
Jillian picked up her duffel crammed with everything she’d been able to take with her, and then her backpack. Both were ridiculously heavy.
For a moment she considered driving one of the cars out to meet her boyfriend.. But knew she couldn’t. The sound of a car engine at one in the morning, on a week night, would wake the dogs sleeping inside and then her parents.
And her plans to run away would be foiled.
With a sigh, she slung the backpack over one shoulder and picked up her duffel with her other hand. Then started down the half-mile lane to the highway where Chip would be waiting.
His steps as easy and virile as his appearance, Cooper fell into step beside her. “Want a hand with that?” he asked with choirboy innocence.
“No, thanks.” Jillian puffed, waving an airy hand. Trying not to think what a dashing figure he cut, she turned her glance toward the horizon and said, “I’m sure you have some sort of ranch work to do right now.” Her body temperature rising inexplicably, she dismissed him impertinently. “Lost cattle. Rustlers…to look for.”
He chuckled and let his glance rove over her flirtatiously. “Actually, darlin’, you’re the only thing going on right now.”
Trying not to notice how he towered over her—or how much she liked it—Jillian dropped her bag dramatically, glad for the excuse to put it down for a second, so she could give her already aching muscles a break. Then she put her hands on her hips and glared up at him, taking in his muscular six-foot-three-inch frame all the while. Between the full moon and starlit sky overhead, and the solar landscaping lights that framed either side of the long, elegant drive of the Circle L Ranch, they could see each other quite well.
“Don’t tell me you’re planning to follow me all the way to the highway.” Which was, unfortunately, a good half-mile.
He grinned and gestured noncommittally. Then came close enough she could smell the soap and manly fragrance of his skin. “Okay, then I won’t tell you.”
Eyes narrowing, she huffed, “Listen, cowboy, this is none of your business.”
He regarded her and said with breathtaking chivalry. “It’s always a person’s business when he sees a young lady in trouble.”
Young lady! Was he serious?
He made her sound like she belonged in some silly Edwardian novel.
Heavens, this man was annoying!
Telling herself she did not need this handsome, sexy cowboy’s protection, she turned on her heel and marched back to her things. Spine ramrod stiff, she hefted her bags onto her shoulders. “You’re going to make me late.”
He fell into step beside her, as she once again headed in the direction of the highway. His one long languid step matched every two of hers. Which for some reason only added to her fury. “Afraid Harcourt won’t wait?” he prodded lazily.
Was she? It wasn’t as if her secret beau had stood her up thus far. Yet, it did bother her how seldom they actually did see each other. Most of their communication was via the burner phone he had gifted her with. “Of course, he will!”
Cooper looked over at her curiously. “Then…?” he queried.
She was just nervous. Clearly Cooper wanted to know why.
Maybe the quickest way to get rid of him was to let him know she was already spoken for. Proudly, she lifted her gaze to his and announced, “It’s not every day a girl elopes.”
He took in her building excitement. The special care she had taken when doing her hair and make-up and picking out her clothes.
The appreciative gleam in his eyes made her feel the extra care had all been worth it. Even though, of course, she had done it for Chip, not him!
“So, in other words, this is your eighteenth birthday present to yourself,” Cooper drawled.
Wow, Jillian thought in pure astonishment, realizing that the infurating man knew not just exactly how old she was, but that it was her birthday, too! Her four brothers and three sisters could barely keep that straight! Of course, there were eight kids in the family… And her dad might have mentioned it in passing, since she knew her parents were planning a big party for her that coming weekend. A party she hoped would turn into a birthday slash elopement celebration. Once her marriage was a fait accompli…
“Or am I wrong about that?” Cooper persisted, studying her in mute disapproval.
Jillian had to put her bags down again. Hand to her chest, she paused to catch her breath. Cooper was still looking down at her, and when she gazed insolently back at him, she couldn’t help but notice how completely protective he looked. Even if he was, like most everyone else in her life, hopelessly misguided. “No, you’re not wrong about that,” she answered finally. Aware that if she hadn’t known better, she would have thought the goading cowboy didn’t want her to get married and hence take herself “off the market,” and leave Laramie County. “Although I would have said yes to Chip’s proposal even if it weren’t my birthday.”
Cooper picked up her bags, hefting them as easily as half-filled paper grocery bags, and headed on down the lane. Leaving her to follow him at will.
He shot her a considering look over one shoulder. “He’s that incredible a boyfriend?”
“Fiancé,” Jillian corrected, rushing to catch up. And more than a little irked by the skepticism in his deep, male voice, replied. “And yes, he is.”
Cooper leaned down, so they were face-to-face. Mischief sparkled in his eyes. “I guess he’s romantic then, too.”
Jillian flushed self-consciously. “Very!” Not a day went by she didn’t get a virtual bouquet, or playlist or a sweet love message from her boyfriend slash fiancé. He had even written her poetry! She couldn’t imagine Cooper Maitland ever doing that.
“And an all-around good guy, too?” Cooper queried.
Defiantly, she ignored the niggling doubt that popped up at times like now. “Yes!”
He nodded at her. “Do your parents like him?”
Something else she would have preferred not to reveal. “They haven’t actually met him,” she admitted, her heart thumping once again.
Looking at her thoughtfully, he let his tone drop a confidential notch. “Why not?”
Pretending his attempts to delay her so they could continue their argument were not bothering her in the least, Jillian flashed a confident smile. “Because they refused to even let me introduce him to the family!”
A sardonic grin tugged at the corners of his lips. “How come?”
She bristled. “They think Chip is too old for me.”
“So they know you’ve been seeing him,” he said soft and low.
Damn, Cooper’s voice was like velvet. She could wrap herself in it. If she were ever around him like that, that was. Not that she planned to be…
Pushing away the crazy burst of physical attraction, she drew a calming breath and reminded herself that Chip Harcourt was the love of her life, not the aggravating cowboy in front of her, with the sable brown eyes that saw far too much…
Aware Cooper was still waiting for her explanation, she admitted in exasperation, “They know I wanted to date him. And have ever since I met him at a concert out at Lake Laramie in June. But they wouldn’t allow it because he was twenty-four.”
Cooper rubbed his hand across his jaw. “Hmm,” he rumbled with a maddeningly affable shrug. “Three years older than me. That is old!”
So Cooper was twenty-one.
She didn’t know why she found that so intriguing. It wasn’t like she was interested in him or anything…
Oblivious to the direction of her thoughts, Cooper stepped closer still. He gazed down at her, as if trying to understand. “That why you have been sneaking out to see him for the last six weeks?” he asked her gently. Compassion and a need to understand filled the night air between them. “’Cause it was forbidden love and all that?”
Hearing it put like that made her feel even more out of her depth. Stifling a groan of dismay, she lifted her chin. “How do you know I was sneaking out…?” All the while she found herself studying the frayed collar on his T-shirt. The way his sinewy chest and shoulders filled out the dark knit.
His husky chuckle filled the warm night air. “Well, the rope ladder coming down over the roof after midnight every Wednesday night is kind of hard to miss.”
Gosh darn it. She had been so careful. Not getting caught by her family even once!
“Not if you weren’t looking,” she told him.
“True.” His eyes twinkled. “But as the newest hired hand, part of my job is to patrol the ranch at night. Keep an eye out for stray cattle, rustlers.”
She knew there had been a problem lately. That over the course of the summer several ranches had lost some of their herd. Especially the newborn calves. She scowled at him, her heartbeat accelerating. “Well, your job isn’t to spy on me!”
Eyes still locked with hers, he shrugged his broad shoulders. “They were collateral sightings, that’s all. And frankly—” he made no effort to hide his boredom “—not very interesting at that. All the two of you did was sit in Casey’s—”
“Chip’s!” she corrected. Knowing he had gotten the name wrong on purpose! To get under her skin. Which he had!
“Okay…Chip’s convertible and talk for about thirty minutes before you went back to the ranch house.”
Her mouth fell open. She didn’t know whether to feel resentful or horrified. Certainly, she was embarrassed. “You watched us the whole time?”
He poked the brim of his hat back. His dark brows constricted in concern. “Well, up till today you have been underage, and I wanted to make sure you were okay. That some guy wasn’t taking advantage. ’Cause then I would have been duty bound to step in. You, being a minor and all. But—” he tilted his head to one side, looking as relieved as she suddenly felt “—it looked like he never did.”
No, Chip Harcourt hadn’t.
Precisely because she had been underage.
But now, as of thirty minutes ago, she wasn’t! So… Doing her best to suppress her continued mortification, Jillian squared her shoulders and drew herself up to her full five feet nine inches. The fact she was starting to have second thoughts about what she was doing was pre-elopement jitters, that was all.
She swallowed hard around the knot of anxiety in her throat. “Well, you needn’t worry. Before anything like that happens, Chip Harcourt plans to marry me and make it all legal.” Then she wouldn’t have to hide. And she wouldn’t have to lie. And she wouldn’t have to feel so darn guilty all the time.
Cooper continued watching her curiously. “And then what?” he asked, his gaze sifting over her, taking in her burning cheeks and trembling lips.
Harsh experience had shown Cooper Maitland that no good could ever come of rescuing a damsel in distress. So it should have been easy to ignore sassy, headstrong Jillian Lockhart. It wasn’t.
Part of it was the fact she was so strikingly beautiful. Her long-lashed sea-blue eyes were incredibly captivating, dominating the elegant features of her oval face, with its slightly upturned nose, prominent cheekbones and lush lips.
The rest was that she was so extremely determined to go down a path that could easily ruin the rest of her life.
Call him foolish. And maybe he was, for putting in jeopardy the job he had worked so hard to get. But he didn’t want to see her hurt.
Not that he could fully prevent that now.
Because the situation was too far gone for that.
His body hardening, he let his gaze sift over her lithe and feminine frame. And once again, he tried to urge her to use her common sense. “What happens after you have a ring on your finger?” he asked, his fingers itching to explore the thick, silky mane of honey-blond hair cascading over her slender shoulders and down her back.
For a second, he thought she wasn’t going to answer. Whether because she didn’t know or simply hadn’t thought that far ahead, he did not know.
Curious, he prompted, “Your dad said you were leaving for Texas A&M in two weeks, to study botany.” He took in her white denim skirt, lacey blouse and peacock blue boots. “Is that still the plan?” He kept his gaze locked with hers. “Or are you giving up college for Chip Harcourt?”
For the first time sorrow came and went in her expression. With a frown, she admitted, “I’m going to have to, temporarily anyway. Chip travels for work. So if I want to be with him, and I do, I’ll have to go with him.”
Cooper could only imagine how much fun that would be for a free-spirited, personally ambitious young woman like her. “And live in motels?” He stepped closer, invading her personal space.
Her spine stiffened. “I’m sure we will get an apartment somewhere.”
Given what he knew about her “fiancé,” he doubted that.
“I’ll get my education eventually,” Jillian promised.
But not wanting to argue with her, he merely nodded.
Resentment glittering in her pretty eyes, she picked up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. “You don’t believe me?”
He reached for her duffel bag and fell into stride beside her. “I believe your intentions are good.”
In lockstep, they headed for the highway, now visible in the distance.
She tossed her head of silky blond hair. “But?”
Wishing he didn’t desire her the way he had never desired anyone else, he told her what he had learned. The hard way. “Life…has a way of getting in the way of goals. Especially when you marry way too young. For all the wrong reasons.”
She stormed on ahead. “Love isn’t a wrong reason!”
Cooper hated the fact she had been duped. Her innocent heart all but taken by such an unscrupulous shyster. He moved to catch up. “Sure you know what love is?”
She narrowed her glance. “Of course.”
Her self-conscious flush and evasive eyes said otherwise. “As opposed to passion,” he continued, drinking in her bare, suntanned legs and the alluring rose fragrance of her perfume.
“I told you.” She wrinkled her nose. “We’re waiting.”
It did not escape his attention that the first two buttons on her blouse were undone, revealing a triangle of creamy, soft skin above her breasts. “Surely he’s kissed you so well he made your toes curl and your whole body tingle?” If Jillian had been Cooper’s girlfriend, he sure as hell would have.
Not that he was going there.
He wasn’t that foolish!
Protecting her from the jackass was going to have to be enough.
The look on her face said No.
Filling him with relief.
“I am sure it will happen,” she insisted stubbornly. “Probably tonight.”
Cooper was, too.
Trouble was, he didn’t want it to happen. Any more than her folks did.
Her steps slowed as the empty highway came into sight. The lights that framed the archway into the ranch shone down upon them.
Still, no Chip Harcourt. No sign of his snazzy convertible. They set down her belongings. She pulled out her burner phone, looked at it.
Hoping the guy hadn’t gotten wind of what was about to happen, Cooper asked her casually, “Any messages?”
She shook her head. “He’ll be here.” She slid her phone back in her pocket, then ran her hand through her hair. Looking both aggravated and exasperated. “You don’t have to wait.”
Actually, Cooper thought wryly, he kind of did.
Headlights appeared in the distance. Seeing it was a convertible, Jillian breathed a big sigh of relief. “Okay. Now you really have to leave.”
“How come?” Cooper said, stalling. “You think he’ll be…jealous?”
She swung back to face him.
Their gazes locked. Something changed in her eyes, a flicker of uncertainty glimmering in their beautiful sea-blue depths. His pulse amped up as she drew another quick breath. “No. Of course not.” She bit her lip, looking increasingly young and vulnerable. She cocked her head to one side. “Why would he be?”
Maybe because of the potent physical attraction shimmering between them. Attraction that had been there since the first moment they had laid eyes on each other.
And the fact that he sensed she secretly dreamed about kissing him every bit as often as he fantasized about kissing her…
Chip Harcourt’s car neared. Slowed.
For a moment it looked as if he might just keep on driving. Until he saw who was standing next to Jillian, that was.
The unscrupulous jerk smiled and turned his car into the drive. Then stopped, cut the engine. Got out. He strolled forward, in a suit and tie.
He had a bouquet of white roses in hand. “What’s going on?” he asked Jillian cautiously.
“Nothing.” She tossed her backpack into the rear seat, then went back for her duffel. “Cooper was just seeing us off.” She smiled, giving him a look that said he should exit. Now.
Cooper ignored her cue.
She sent him a withering glare only he could see. “Wishing us well,” Jillian continued.
“Hmm.” Chip studied Cooper. With a suspicious frown, he took the duffel from Jillian and put it in the back seat of his car, beside her backpack. Handed her the bouquet.
And then everything happened very fast. Sheriff’s vehicles approached from both directions, lights blazing, sirens wailing. And just as swiftly, blocked the ranch entrance.
Robert and Carol Lockhart got out of one of the squad cars. They were joined by Laramie County deputies Dan McCabe and Rio Vasquez, and several others from nearby counties.
“Chip Harcourt,” Dan McCabe said, “we have a warrant for your arrest.”
“For what?” Jillian cried, tremendously upset.
Cooper grabbed her and held her back before she could rush to her secret fiancé’s aid.
Rio brought over a rap sheet that was pages long. “Bigamy, extortion, embezzlement, theft.”
Her parents approached. “He’s a con man.”
“He is,” Rio stated. “He targets young, impressionable women, talks them into eloping with him, and then offers to annul before the marriage is consummated, if the parents will pay him off. Which most do. He steals whatever he can from those who don’t.” Rio regarded Jillian sympathetically. “Right now he is romancing three underage girls simultaneously.”
She gasped, still trembling. “I don’t believe it!”
Reluctantly, Cooper handed her off to her parents, who surrounded her. “We’re sorry, honey,” Carol Lockhart said. “When we found out what was going on…”
“From Cooper…” Robert Lockhart added. “We went to law enforcement and had Chip Harcourt investigated.”
Jillian broke away from her parents long enough to whirl on Cooper. Looking stricken and completely betrayed. “So you knew all along!” she cried.
He lifted a placating hand, not sure what she expected him to say. “I didn’t want to see you hurt.”
“So, you humiliated me instead!” Jillian countered bitterly. And it didn’t take a genius to see that she was never going to forgive him.