Excerpt: A Cowboy’s Secret

Excerpt: A Cowboy’s Secret

Code of the West

Chapter One

The ring of the telephone jolted Lydia awake.

She knocked it off the night stand groping for it in the dark. Finally she yanked it to her ear, cleared her throat, and managed her most poised it’s-the-middle-of-the-night- but-you-won’t-catch-me-napping lawyerly tone. “Lydia Cochrane.”

She got an obscenity for her trouble.

“Where’s Rance?” The voice was rough, decidedly male and oddly familiar. “I called Rance.”  Not you was understood.

Lydia pulled herself upright and took a deep breath. “Mr. Phillips’s calls are being forwarded to my number this weekend,”she said firmly. “I’m the lawyer on call.”

Another muttered obscenity. “I need to talk to Rance.”

“Well, you can’t.” Why did men think only another man was qualified to be a lawyer? “Mr. Phillips is unavailable. I’m your only option. So do you want a lawyer, whoever you are, or shall I go back to bed?”

The length of the silence that followed told her more clearly than words what his answer was. But at last he said, “This is J.D. Holt. I need you to bail me out.”

Lydia almost swallowed her tongue. Something inside her — her heart? her stomach? — did a complete flip flop, then scrabbled for a toehold on her rib cage.

“J.D?” His name came out as almost a yelp. Then, “J.D.” she repeated. Better this time. Still breathy, but at least modulated. “Bail you . . . out. Of jail.” Which went without saying.

She took a deep breath. “Of course. I’ll be right there.” She started to put the phone down, then stopped, realizing that she needed to ask, “You’re in the, um . . . Murray jail?”

“I’m in the Murray jail, sweetheart,” J.D. agreed, his tone mocking, just as she knew it would be. But then he sighed wearily. “Look, this is no place for you. Just call Rance and go back to sleep.”

Lydia stiffened. “I am not calling Rance. I am as capable of bailing you out as you were of getting yourself in there in the first place, Mr. Holt. I’ll be right there. Just wait.”

And there was stupidity for you, Lydia thought savagely as she banged down the phone and clambered out of bed.

As if he were going anywhere!

# # #

“He did what?”

“Socked Trey Phillips in the mouth. Just walked right into the bar and nailed him.” Jim Muldoon smacked his fist against his other palm for emphasis. The sound made Lydia wince.

Jim handed her an instant photo. Lydia studied it, still trying to make sense of it. J.D. Holt, Trey’s foreman, had punched his boss out?

Apparently so. Trey’s lip was puffy. He was scowling fiercely. Fortunately all his teeth seemed to be in tact. “He’s pressing charges?”

“If he didn’t, we’d charge ‘im anyhow,” Jim said cheerfully. “A feller can’t just sock another feller ’cause he feels like it.”

“And he just . . . felt like it?” She should have remembered to ask J.D. what he’d been arrested for. But at four in the morning she was not at her best.

“Ticked off, he was. That’ what I hear.” Jim explained. “Apparently he just found out Trey sold the place. His place. The one his daddy owned, I mean.”

Oh, God.

“Just found out?” Lydia couldn’t mask her surprise. “But I thought — He didn’t know?”

Jim shrugged. “Don’t seem so. And it don’t seem like he was too happy when he got the word.”

“I … see.” She felt a little ill. She wanted to sit down.

Jim patted her on the shoulder. “He ain’t mad at you. Just Trey — an’ probably whoever bought the ranch.” Jim grinned. Then he shook his head. “But I reckon he knows better’n to go after the old man again.”

Lydia swallowed. “That’s comforting.”

“You’re on his side,” Jim assured her. “It was the ranch upset him. An’ Trey. He’s settled down now or I wouldn’t have let him call you.”

Lydia dredged up a smile and hoped Jim was right. Then she gave him the money for the bond.

Jim put it in the desk drawer, then got out the keys for the cell block. “I’ll be filin’ the paperwork on Monday. Reckon Kristen will be in touch.”

Kristen Brooks, who had grown up with Lydia, was now Murray’s assistant county attorney.

“She’ll have the charges all spelled out,” he said as he opened the door to the Murray jail’s tiny cell block.

“Fine.” Lydia wasn’t thinking about Kristen. She wasn’t thinking about the charges or about anything Jim was saying as he led her back toward the furthest cell from the door.

She was busy trying to compose herself. She was trying to act calm, cool and professional, to behave like a thirty-two year old woman with a law degree and a reputation for both intellectual acuity and common sense — and not like the lovestruck junior high school girl with braces and a four point GPA she’d been the first time she’d been face to face with fifteen-year-old bad boy J.D. Holt.

“Your ride’s here,” Jim said, his tone almost jovial as he clumped toward the last cell.

Lydia heard the creak of the metal bed as the prisoner got up. Boots scraped on the concrete floor. Jim rattled the key in the lock, then pushed the door open.

Lydia wiped damp palms on the sides of her jeans one last time, then pasted her best professional-lawyer look on her face as Jim stepped aside.

And there he was: a glowering grown-up J.D. Holt.

He was lean and tough and hard as nails. Exactly the way she remembered him. He wore the ubiquitous faded Wranglers, a thin cotton shirt and a battered straw cowboy hat that was the summer uniform of the Montana cowboy.

It was what was inside those clothes that made J.D. Holt different. Deep. Hard. Dangerous.

The first time she’d recognized that, she’d been twelve years old and had gone with her banker father to the Holt ranch. He’d gone to discuss a loan with J.D.’s father.

Lydia had gone to dream — to feed her fantasies of growing up and marrying a cowboy, of riding and roping and living on a ranch. Incidentally she’d thought she might see Gus, Dan’s younger son, who was in her grade at school. Gus, with his dark reddish-brown hair and twinkling green eyes, was the cutest boy in seventh grade. Lydia had hopes that he might grow up and turn into that cowboy of her dreams.

Gus, unfortunately, had been nowhere around when her father and Dan Holt shooed her out toward the corral.

“J.D.’s out there,” Dan Holt had said.

And her father had nodded. “Go visit with J.D.”

Nobody, Lydia could have told them at the ripe old age of twelve, visited with J.D. Holt!

Girls like her — reasonably well-behaved, hard-working, studious little girls — crossed the street when they saw J.D. coming.

Not because he’d ever done anything to them — he couldn’t be bothered. But he was three years older, even though only a grade ahead of her, and he had the reputation at school of being a holy terror. Teachers despaired of him. The principal didn’t know what to do with him. His fights and scrapes were legendary.

If anybody looked cross-eyed at J.D. Holt, Lydia’s friend Kristen told her, he would pound them into a pulp.

Cross-eyed as a child — and too literal-minded for her own good — Lydia had made up her mind to keep well away from J.D.

But that afternoon in spite of herself, she couldn’t.

Her gaze had found the boy in the corral working with a skittish young paint horse. It was J.D.

He didn’t pay any attention to her. His focus was entirely on the horse as he rode bareback, moving in easy broad curves. It was beautiful, like watching a dance. When the horse faltered or didn’t do what J.D. wanted him to do, he responded quietly, gently. There was none of the fierceness or impatience she’d seen at a distance in the schoolyard. He might have been a different person.

Intrigued, Lydia had edged closer. As she approached the corral, the young horse caught her scent. His ears twitched, his head jerked, he shied and reared.

Anyone else would have fallen off.

J.D. didn’t.

She was sure he knew she was watching him, but he never looked at her once.

All his focus was on the horse. And the horse, apparently deciding that she was no threat, was paying attention to J.D. once more.

As she watched she realized he was the cowboy she’d always dreamed of. There was much more to the rough-edged J.D. Holt than she’d ever thought. 

He seemed so much bigger than Gus. So much older. So much closer to being a man. Lydia felt a sort of primal awareness quicken somewhere deep within.

The screen door banged. “Come on, Lydie,” her father called. “Time to go.”

Lydia hadn’t wanted to. She’d wanted to hang there, watching J.D. ride that horse forever.

She’d wanted him to turn and say, “I know you. You’re Lydia Cochrane. Gus says you want to live on a ranch. You want to marry a cowboy? I’ll wait for you.”

The very thought sent her stumbling off the fence.

But still she couldn’t leave, not without one last look. Not without just one small acknowledgment from J.D. Holt that she was alive and sharing the same universe with him.

She’d looked back, determined to smile at him.

He’d glared right through her.

He looked at her now with that same hard insolence.

And Lydia, despite her determination to be indifferent, wasn’t. The primal awareness of J.D. Holt as a man, as “other” — strange, tantalizing, forbidding and tempting — that she’d had clear back when she was twelve turned over and kicked in just as sharp and insistent as ever.

“Sure you want ‘im?” Jim drawled.

She flushed. “I’m his lawyer,” she said crisply. 

“She posted your bond,” Jim told J.D. “You skip out, she’s responsible.”

“He won’t skip out,” Lydia said, as if saying it would make it so. It was like being given the reins of a wild stallion. She had no idea what he would do. So she took refuge in her responsibility, taking the papers Jim handed her and scrawling her signature on them.

J.D. didn’t say a word. But she could feel his presence, as if something was vibrating in the space between them. She handed the papers back to Jim who glanced over them, then nodded.

“Keep your nose clean,” he said to J.D. “And stay the hell away from Trey. I’ll keep my eye out for a place for you to move to. Trey says you’re supposed to be out first of September.”

Judging from the harsh intake of breath beside her, Lydia knew that was the wrong thing to say. Without thinking she grabbed J.D.’s arm. It was pure reflex, as if she would be able to prevent him doing the same thing to Jim that he’d done to Trey.

Fat chance.

But whether she could have physically prevented disaster or not, her hand on his arm stopped him. He looked at it, then at her.

Eyes as clear and light a blue as J.D. Holt’s should have been cold as ice, but they weren’t. They burned her with their intensity and Lydia almost pulled her hand away.

Instead she curved her nails a little more firmly into the hard muscle beneath her fingers and gave Jim a brittle smile. “Thank you,” she said to him. To J.D. she said, “Let’s go.”

She didn’t think he was going to move. And God knew she certainly couldn’t make him. But finally he gave one quick sharp jerk of his head and started toward the door.

Once they were on the sidewalk, Lydia let go of his arm as quickly as if she’d been holding the business end of a branding iron, then rubbed her damp palm on the side of her jeans.

It was just beginning to get light, the barest hint of a late August gray dawn peeking over the mountains to the east. There was no traffic on Main Street. No movement. No life.

Just the two of them — she and J.D. Holt.