Excerpt: A Cowboy’s Pursuit

Excerpt: A Cowboy’s Pursuit

Code of the West

Chapter One

The slam of the door stirred Artie Gilliam from his cat nap in the armchair in his living room. He blinked, glanced at his watch, then frowned as he heard booted feet cross the kitchen and stomp in his direction. 

“Bit early for lunch, ain’t it?” he said when Jace Tucker appeared, glowering from the doorway. “Or did my watch stop?” His daddy had given it to him right after the First World War and Artie supposed it could have given up the ghost by now, but he hoped it hadn’t. He was counting on something outlasting his ninety-year old bones.

“I didn’t come for lunch,” Jace growled. He stalked into the room, still scowling, his hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans, his shoulders hunched. He strode clear to the end of the room before he turned and nailed Artie with a glare. “She’s back.” 

“She,” Artie echoed with interest. It wasn’t a question. He knew damned well which ‘she’ Jace meant. 

As far as Jace Tucker was concerned, there was only one female in the whole universe: Celie O’Meara. Not that Jace had ever said as much to him. Or to anyone. 

If there was ever anyone more likely to make a hash of his love life besides himself, Artie reckoned, and that had been a good sixty odd years ago now it was Jace. For a smart, good-lookin’ feller who oughta be able to sweep a woman off her feet without half tryin’, Jace didn’t have the skills of a push broom. 

Artie sighed inwardly and shook his head. 

Misinterpreting the head shake, Jace enlightened him. “Celie,” he spat. 

“Ayah.” Artie tried to look as if he hadn’t already figured that out. He smiled gently. “How nice.” 

Jace’s shoulders seemed to tighten more. “Ha,” he said. He did another furious lap around the living room. The young fool would wear out the rug at the rate he was going, and that would be something else that wouldn’t survive him, Artie thought glumly. 

Now he raised his brows. “Thought you was lookin’ forward to her comin’ back.” 

Jace, being Jace of course, hadn’t said anything of the sort. 

But every day when he’d come back from working at the hardware store or from training horses out at the ranch, he asked if Artie had heard from any of Celie’s family. The whole O’Meara clan had gone to Hawaii ten days ago for the wedding of Celie’s sister Polly to Sloan Gallagher. 

Artie was sorry he’d missed it, but the ol’ ticker had durn near give out on him this past winter and the doc had said he wasn’t up for flying halfway around the world yet. Didn’t matter, really as they’d kept him posted. He’d heard all about the wedding on the beach and the party with Sloan’s film crew afterwards, and he’d always shared the news with Jace. 

He’d relayed every scrap of information he’d got after phone calls from Celie’s mother, Joyce, from Polly and Sloan, from Polly’s oldest daughter, Sarah, and once, from Celie herself. 

“Huh,” Jace had said when Artie told him about Celie’s phone call. “Managed to tear herself away from all those beach bums long enough to see if you were still among the livin’, did she?” 

Artie had grinned. “She’s a sweetheart, all right,” he had agreed, knowing that wasn’t what Jace had meant at all. 

Jace had scowled then. 

Jace was scowling now, hands jammed in the pockets of his jeans as he rocked back on the heels of his well-worn cowboy boots. 

“Reckoned you’d be glad to see her,” Artie said, lifting a quizzical brow. 

“That was when I thought she’d come to her senses!” Jace’s boots came down flat with a thump. 

Artie frowned. “She didn’t cause no problems at Polly and Sloan’s weddin’, did she?” 

Everyone in Elmer knew that Celie had had a crush on cowboy-turned-actor Sloan Gallagher for years. She’d even bid her life’s savings to win a Hollywood weekend with him at that cowboy auction they’d held a few months back! 

What’s more, she’d won! But if she’d gone out there starry-eyed over Sloan — and Artie wasn’t absolutely sure she had — she’d sure seemed to come back cured. She’d had nothing but good things to say about Sloan, but she’d treated him more like a brother after that. 

And a good thing, too, as Sloan had been sweet on her sister, Polly. It could have been sticky, but it hadn’t been. At least Artie didn’t think it had been. Far as he knew Celie had been delighted to be asked to be the maid of honor at Polly and Sloan’s wedding. 

“She behaved herself at the weddin’, didn’t she?” he demanded now. 

“Guess so.” Jace turned and glowered out the window. He rubbed the back of his neck, clenched his fists at his sides, then hunched his shoulders again. To an old rough stock rider like Artie, he looked exactly like a bull about to blow. 

“She ain’t gone back to hankerin’ after Matt Williams!” he said, aghast. 

Matt Williams had jilted Celie years back. At the time she’d been little more than a child — barely twenty and besotted with a foolish footloose boy who didn’t know a good thing when he had it. But telling her so hadn’t helped. Matt’s rejection had liked to killed her. It had sure as shootin’ made her scared of trustin’ men. 

To Artie’s way of thinking, if you got bucked off, you had to just get right back on again, meet other guys, go out on dates. But Celie hadn’t seen it that way. She’d holed up with her magazines and her videos and had spent the last ten years dreamin’ about Sloan Gallagher. 

As far as Artie knew, she hadn’t had a date since Matt had dumped her — not until February anyway, when she’d got up the gumption to bid on Sloan. Of course by then Sloan had already set his sights on Polly. 

Artie hoped to goodness that, her dreams of Sloan thwarted, she hadn’t decided to start thinking about Matt again. 

“Make more sense if she had,” Jace muttered. 

That made Artie’s brows lift. “Since when did you become a Matt Williams’ fan?” 

“Matt’s a jerk,” Jace said now. He yanked off his straw cowboy hat and raked a hand through his hair. “But then we all know that.” 

Artie had a terrible thought. “She didn’t get engaged to no surfer!” 

Jace snorted. He scowled. He strangled the brim of his hat. “No.” 

“Well, then, what the devil’s the problem? Don’t tell me you two are fightin’ all ready?” 

It wasn’t any secret that Celie and Jace didn’t see eye to eye. Course that was on account of Celie always having been a sweet, proper-brought-up girl and Jace being something of a hell-raiser. And if that hadn’t been enough, Artie knew Celie had always considered Jace the inspiration for Matt’s going astray. 

“Matt’s role model,” she’d called him. Role model was one of the nicer terms she’d used. 

And there was some truth to her accusation. Any young cowpoke with a hankering for women and the wild side could’ve learned a few things about it from Jace Tucker. Even now he still liked to have a good time. But he’d settled down a good bit, to Artie’s way of thinking. 

The Jace he’d got to know over these past few months drank a few beers and shot a few games of pool at the Dew Drop, but he never came home drunk – and he always came home. Didn’t bring no girls with him, either. 

He was true to Celie. Not that she knew it. 

Jace wasn’t the sort of feller who wore his heart on his sleeve. Most of the time, Artie reckoned, the young fool had it wrapped up in barbed wire and duct tape and buried it under six feet of sarcasm. So it wasn’t real surprising that Celie didn’t think he had one. 

“You two,” Artie muttered, shaking his head in dismay as Jace began pacing again, “are enough to try the patience of a saint. You ain’t seen her but a few minutes this morning, Jace! You couldn’t have, bein’s how it’s only just past ten o’clock. So what the dickens has she done to tick you off now?” 

“She’s leavin’!” 

“What?” 

“You heard me. She’s leavin’!” Jace looked halfway between angry and anguished. His blue eyes, generally light and sunny as a summer sky, were now the color of a storm. He flung his battered hat onto the davenport and cracked his knuckles so loud they sounded like gunshots. 

“What the devil do you mean, she’s leavin’? Where in tarnation would she go?” 

“Remember her singles cruise?” Jace fairly spat the words. 

Artie’s eyes bugged. Of course he remembered the singles cruise. When Celie had come home from her weekend in Hollywood with Sloan, heart whole and over her crush at last, she’d been determined to get on with her life. 

Jace, who had darned near driven Artie crazy all the time she was gone, had barely breathed a sigh of relief when he’d discovered that just because Celie was over Sloan, it didn’t mean she was going to fall into his arms. 

No sir. Instead she’d gone on a singles cruise. 

“Don’t see how she can go on another one,” Artie said. “Them things are expensive.” 

“She can afford it,” Jace said through his teeth, “if they hire her.” 

“Hire her?” 

“That’s what she came in this morning to say. Just waltzed in, pretty as you please, and handed in her notice. ‘Just wanted you to know I’ll be leavin’ in two weeks,'” Jace mimicked Celie’s soft tones. ” ‘Got a job on a cruise ship,'” Jace went on in the same furious sing-song voice, “‘so I won’t be around to annoy you anymore.'” He slammed his fist into his palm to punctuate the end of the quote. 

Artie’s heart kicked over in his chest. It worried him a little when his heart did that, but not as much as he was worried about Jace. And about what Jace would do now. 

“So,” Artie challenged him, “what’re you gonna do about it?” 

Jace slapped his hat back on his head and jerked it down hard. “Get drunk,” he said furiously. “Then go find me some other girl!” 

He turned on his heel and banged out the door. All the windows rattled. 

Artie sighed and shook his head. Life really was wasted on the young.