Sarah M. Anderson

Contemporary Westerns with a KICK

The wheels of Thalia’s rental sedan spun on the gravel as the driving winds tried to push her off the road, but she kept control of the car. It was nice to have control over something, even if it was a Camry.

Because she certainly did not have control over this situation. If she did, she wouldn’t be stalking James Robert Bradley to the middle-of-nowhere Montana in what could only be described as the dead of winter. Hell, she didn’t even know if she’d find him. And, as it had been close to an hour since she’d seen another sign of life, she wasn’t sure she’d find anything.

Still, there was a road, and she was on it. Roads went places, after all. This one cut through miles and miles of Montana grassland that was probably lush and green in the summer. However, as it was late January, the whole landscape looked lifeless and deserted. Snow so old it had taken on a grey hue lined the road. If she were filming a post-apocalyptic movie, this would be perfect.

At least it wasn’t snowing right now, she told herself in a forcibly cheerful tone as she glanced at the car’s thermometer. It was 22° outside. Not that cold, really. She had that going for her. Of course, that didn’t include the wind chill, but still. It’s not like it was sub-zero out there. She could handle it.

Finally, she passed under a signpost that proclaimed “Bar B Ranch,” which also announced trespassers would be shot. The Camry’s wheels bounced over a metal grate a part of her brain remembered was called a cattle guard. She checked the address she’d entered onto her phone’s GPS, and a sense of relief bum-rushed her. She was actually in the right place.

This realization buoyed her spirits. James Robert Bradley’s agent, a small, nervous man named Bernie Lipchitz, hadn’t wanted to give up the address on his most famous—and most private—Oscar-winning client. Thalia had been forced to promise Bernie she’d give his latest would-be starlet a role in the new movie she was producing, Blood for Roses.

Of course, it was her movie only as long as she could get James Robert Bradley signed for the part of Sean. If she couldn’t do that . . .

No time to dwell on the worst-case scenario. She was making excellent progress. She’d tracked down Bradley’s whereabouts, which was no easy task. She’d gotten onto his property—so far, without anyone shooting at her. Few people could claim to have gotten this close to Bradley since he’d disappeared from Hollywood after winning his Oscar almost eleven years ago. Now she had to sign him to the comeback role of a lifetime. Easy, right?

The clock in the dash said four PM, but the sun was already setting, shooting brilliant oranges and purples across the icy blue sky. Beautiful, Thalia thought as the colors lit up the grey landscape. Off to what she thought was the north were a series of low hills that merged with taller mountains in the west. The south and east were as flat as a pancake. She could almost see it in the full bloom of spring. The land was beautiful.

Maybe we could do some of the filming here, she thought as she rounded a bend and saw a massive structure that would have been called a log cabin, except ‘cabin’ didn’t do it justice. She couldn’t tell if the huge, rough-hewn logs rose up two stories or three, and she also couldn’t tell how far back the building went. Behind it were a number of barns—some with an old, weathered look, others made of gleaming metal. Except for the shiny metal buildings, everything looked like it had been on this patch of land for decades. If not centuries.

She didn’t see a single living thing. Not even a dog ran up to greet her as she pulled in front of the house. A wide covered porch offered some protection from the wind.

Well, she wasn’t going to get anyone signed to anything by sitting in a car. Gathering up all of her positive energy, she opened the door.

The icy wind nearly slammed the door shut on her leg and cut right through her patterned tights. Dang, she thought as she pushed against the door. Sure, it had been cold when she’d left the small airport terminal in Billings, Montana, to get into the car—but it hadn’t been this cold. Suddenly, the knee-high boots and tights under the wool dress didn’t seem like a smart business outfit making a concession to winter. They seemed like the definition of foolishness.

Bracing herself against the wind, she pulled the fur-lined collar of her wool trench coat up around her neck and trudged up the porch steps. Please be home, she thought as she looked for the doorbell. Her coat was not rated for this kind of weather.

Another blast of winter rushed up the back of her skirt, making her teeth chatter. Where was the doorbell? Screw it, she thought, pounding on the door in a most unprofessional way. Manners didn’t matter when she was freezing to death.

No one answered.

Freezing to death—in Montana, of all places—wasn’t on her to-do list today. Thalia couldn’t remember being this cold, not even when she was a kid and spent all day playing in the rare snowstorm in Oklahoma. She’d lived in L.A. for the last ten years, for crying out loud. People there complained of the cold when it got below sixty.

Thalia banged on the door again, this time with both hands. Maybe someone was in there, she reasoned. The house was huge. Maybe they were in a room way in the back. “Hello?” She shouted, but the wind wasn’t done with her yet.

No one came.

Okay, time to regroup. What were her choices? She could stand here on the porch until someone showed up, at the risk of freezing. She could try one of the barns. Maybe someone was feeding the animals, and if not, well, at least she’d be sheltered from the wind. The thin stiletto heels on her expensive boots made that a risky proposition. Still, better boots than her body. Or she could get back in the car, crank the heat and wonder what she’d done to deserve this.

Her foot was on the first step down when she saw them—two cowboys on horseback cresting one of the low hills. Thalia gasped at the image before her—it was perfect. The sunset backlit the riders, giving them a halo of gold. Clouds of fog billowed from each of the horse’s noses, which made them look otherworldly. Powerful, with a hint of danger. The whole thing looked like something right out of a movie—and she would know. This is exactly how she wanted to introduce the character of Sean Bridger in Blood for Roses. She’d been right to push for signing James Robert Bradley. This was perfect. He was going to be perfect. She could see the Oscar nominations rolling in.

Plus, someone was here. She could go inside and warm up.

The riders slowed as one of them pointed in her general direction. She’d been spotted. Thank heavens. Much longer, and she wouldn’t be able to feel her legs anymore. She gave a hopeful wave, one that said, ‘Hi. I’m cold.’ It must have worked, because one rider broke off and came charging toward the house at full speed.

Her optimism flipped over to fear in a heartbeat. This guy didn’t look like he was coming to greet her—he rode like he was going to run her down. Sure, Bradley didn’t want to be found—but he or whoever that was wouldn’t hurt her, would he? This wasn’t about to become a shoot-first-ask-later situation, was it? As quickly as she could without betraying her terror, she stepped back onto the porch and out of the line of those hooves.

Still, the rider came on at full speed, pulling up only when he was parallel with her rental. The horse, a shining palomino, reared back, hooves flailing as the steam from his mouth almost enveloped the two of them. The rider’s long coat fanned out behind him, giving her a glimpse of fringed chaps. If she hadn’t been so afraid, Thalia would have appreciated the artistry and sheer skill of the moment. As it was, she half-expected to find herself looking down the barrel of a gun.

When the horse had settled down, the rider pulled the bandanna down. “Help you?” he said in the kind of voice that was anything but helpful.

Then she saw his eyes—the liquid amber that had been one of the defining characteristics of James Robert Bradley. She’d found him. The part of her brain that was still nineteen and watching him on the big screen in the movie Hell for Leather swooned, and swooned hard. God, she’d had the biggest crush on this man a decade ago. And now she was here, actually talking to People Magazine’s Hottest Hunk. Sure, that had been thirteen years ago, but those eyes were still just as dreamy. She fought the urge to ask him for his autograph. The man was intimidating the hell out of her.

Not that she’d let him know that. The first rule of negotiating with actors was not to show weakness. Never let the other party know they held all the cards. So she sucked up what frozen courage she could and said, “James Robert Bradley?”

A look of weariness flashed over those beautiful eyes, then he said, “Miss, I’m not interested.”

“That’s only because you haven’t heard—”

He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “I appreciate the offer, but you can be on your way now.” He turned his mount toward one of the larger, newer barns.

“You didn’t even listen to what I have to say!” She took off after him, her thin heels wobbling on the uneven terrain. “Your agent told me you’d—”

“I’m going to fire him for this,” was the last thing she heard before Bradley disappeared into the barn.

Thalia pulled up. The wind was stronger in the middle of the drive, but she didn’t think following Bradley into the barn was in her best interests. He hadn’t even listened to the offer. How was she supposed to sign him to the movie when she couldn’t even get a civil reply out of him? And if she couldn’t sign him, how was she supposed to go into the office and tell her boss without losing her job?
She heard hoof beats behind her, and turned to see the other rider approaching at a slow walk. “Howdy,” the cowboy said, tipping his hat. “Said no, didn’t he?”

Maybe it was the cold, or the blown plan, or the prospect of being unemployed in less than twenty-four hours. Whatever it was, Thalia felt her throat close up. Don’t cry, she thought, because nothing was less professional than crying over a rejection. Plus, the tears would freeze to her face. “He didn’t even listen to the offer.”

The cowboy gave her a once-over. “I’d be happy to take the part, miss, providing there’s a casting couch involved.” Then he winked.

Was he . . . laughing at her? She shook her head. Maybe he was joking. She couldn’t tell. “Thanks, but I was looking for—”

“An Oscar winner, yeah, I know. Wish I could help you, but . . . he’s pretty set in his ways.”

“Hoss,” came a shout from inside the barn.

“Boss-man’s calling.” The cowboy named Hoss seemed to feel sorry for her.

“Could I at least leave my card? In case he changes his mind?”

“You could try, but . . .”

“Hoss!” The shout was more insistent this time. Hoss tipped his hat again and headed toward the barn.

So much for making progress. Yes, she’d found Bradley, and yes, seeing those eyes of his was probably worth the trip. Everything else? The wind was blowing away her body heat, her career and her crush. If she got in that car and drove away, she’d have nothing left. Levinson would fire her butt for failing to deliver the goods, and she’d be blacklisted. Like last time, when her affair with Levinson had blown up in her face. She couldn’t face having every professional door shut in her face a second time.

She needed Bradley in a way that had nothing to do with his eyes and everything to do with gainful employment.

At least the anger she currently felt was warm in nature. She’d lost contact with her toes, but she could still feel her fingers.

The barn door through which both men had disappeared slid shut.

This was her own fault, she realized. She was the one who had suggested Bradley for the role of Sean. She was the one who had convinced Levinson that even a recluse like Bradley wouldn’t be able to turn down the comeback role of a lifetime. She was the one who had staked her career on something that seemed so simple—getting a man to say yes.

She was the one who had bet wrong. And now she had to pay the price.

She marched back up to the front door, her head held high. That was the second rule of negotiations—never let them know they’ve won. Her hands shaking, she managed to get a business card out of her coat pocket and wedge it in the screen door. The whole time, she mentally tried to come up with some contingency plans. Maybe she’d caught Bradley at a bad time; she knew where he lived now, and she had his number. She could try again, and again—as long as it took until he at least heard her out.

Thalia remained convinced that, if he would just listen to her pitch, he’d be interested in the role. Actors, as a rule, craved public adoration, and what could be better than an Oscar-worthy movie?

No, this wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. Still, hypothermia was becoming a risk. She wished she could go inside and warm up her hands and feet before she tried to drive, but it didn’t look like an invitation would be forthcoming. As she turned back to the Camry, she saw the headlights of another vehicle coming down the road. Someone else meant another opportunity to plead her case, so she put on her friendliest smile and waited.

A mud-splattered SUV rolled up, window down. Before the vehicle had even come to a stop, a woman with graying hair stuck her head out. “What are you doing outside?” she demanded.

“I was hoping to talk to Mr. Bradley.” Thalia kept her voice positive.

The woman gazed out at the barn. When her attention snapped back to Thalia, she looked mad enough to skin a cat. “And he left you out here? That man . . .” She shook her head in disgust. “Poor dear, you must be frozen. Can you wait long enough for me to pull around back and get the door open, or do you need to get in the car?”

Thalia loved this woman more than any other person in the whole world right now, because she was going to let Thalia inside. But she didn’t want this stranger to know how cold she was—or how long she’d been stuck in this frozen purgatory. “I can wait.” Her teeth chattered.

Without another word, the woman drove off. Thalia tried stamping her feet to keep the blood going, but it didn’t do much except send pain shooting up her legs. Just a few more seconds, she told herself.

However, it felt like several minutes passed with no movement from either inside the house or from the barn. Should have gotten in the car, she thought. Then the front door swung open, and the older woman pulled her inside.

“You’re like to frozen stiff!” she said in a clucking voice as she wrapped Thalia in what felt like a bearskin and pulled her deeper into the house. Thalia didn’t have time to take in her surroundings before she found herself plunked down in a plush leather chair. Before her was a fire burning brightly in a massive stone fireplace that took up most of a wall.

Rubbing her hands together, she scooted forward to soak up the heat.

“I’m Minnie Red Horse, by the way. Let’s get those boots off you. Nice boots, but not the best for winter out here.”

“Thalia. Thorne.” That was all she could get out as her blood began to pump through her frozen extremities. When Minnie pulled the boots off, Thalia couldn’t keep the cry of pain out of her voice.

“Poor dear. You sit there and warm up. I’ll make you some tea.” Minnie stood and pulled the mesh covers off the fireplace before she stoked the logs. The flames jumped up, and Thalia felt closer to human.

“Thank you. So much.” She managed to look at what she was wearing. Definitely an animal skin, which kind of creeped her out, but it was warm, so she ignored whatever PETA would say about it.

She heard Minnie shuffling around behind her. Thalia managed to sit up enough to look around. She was at one end of a long room. Behind her was a plank table, big enough to seat six. Beyond that was an open kitchen with rustic cabinets and a lot of marble. The whole effect was like something out of Architectural Digest—and far beyond the small ranch house her grandpa had spent his whole life in.

As big as the place seemed, it had looked much larger from the outside. Minnie had a kettle on. “Where are you from, Thalia?”

“Los Angeles.” She tried wiggling her toes, but it still hurt, so she quit.

“You’re a long way from home, sweetie. How long you been travelling?”

Thalia decided she liked Minnie, above and beyond the warm fire and the tea. It’d been a long time since anyone had called her sweetie. Not since Grandpa had died. Mom was more fond of ‘dear.’ “My flight left LAX at 3:30 this morning.”

“Goodness, you made that whole trip in one day?” Minnie walked over and handed Thalia a steaming mug. “That’s quite a journey. Where are you staying tonight?”

“Um. . .” She’d had a plan, but her head was fuzzy right now. “I have a room in Billings.”

Minnie gave her a look that landed somewhere between concern and pity. “You realize that’s five hours away, and it’s already near sunset, right? That’s a long drive in the dark.”

Thalia hadn’t realized how far away Billings was from the Bar B Ranch when she’d booked the room, and given her current state, five hours seemed like five days. How was she going to make it that far? The drive out had been hard enough, and that had been during daylight hours. Fighting that wind in the dark on strange roads was kind of a scary thought.

“Here’s what you’re going to do.” Minnie patted her arm after Thalia took several sips of the tea. “You’re going to sit right here until you feel better, and then you’re going to have dinner. You came through Beaverhead, right?”

Thalia nodded, trying not to snicker at the juvenile name. Minnie’s tone made it clear that dinner was non-negotiable, but Thalia wasn’t sure she could have hopped up and bailed if she’d tried. Her toes hurt.

“Lloyd has rooms he rents—as close as we’ve got to a motel ‘round these parts.” Thalia didn’t have a clue as to what Minnie was talking about, but she was in no position to argue. She took another sip of tea, loving the way the warmth raced down her throat and spread through her stomach.

“I’ll tell him you’ll be by later,” Minnie went on, as if Thalia was still with her. ‘That’s only forty minutes away. You can make that.”

Thalia nodded again. Now that she was returning to normal, she seemed to have lost her words.

Minnie gave her a tender smile. “I’ve got to see to dinner, but you rest up.” She stood and headed back to the kitchen area, muttering, “All the way from L.A. in one day!” and “That man . . .” as she went.

Thalia settled back into the chair, still sipping the tea. She knew she needed to be game-planning dinner with Bradley, but her brain was mushy.

She heard a door open. Men’s voices filled the space. One was grumbling about the weather, but the other—Bradley’s—said, “Minnie, what the hell is—”

Is she still doing here. That’s what he was going to say. After all, he’d pretty much kicked her off his land, and now she was sitting in his house. He sounded none-too-happy about the whole prospect. How was she going to make it through dinner with him? She debated thanking Minnie for the tea and leaving, but then the smell of pot roast filled the air and Thalia realized that she hadn’t eaten anything since she’d grabbed a sandwich in the airport. The Denver airport—eight hours ago.

“Now, now!” Thalia wasn’t watching the conversation—listening was bad enough—but she could imagine Minnie waggling a finger at James Robert Bradley like he was a child and she was the boss. “You boys go on and get cleaned up. Dinner will be ready by and by.”

“I don’t want—”

“I said, go! Shoo!”

Thalia grinned in spite of herself at the mental image that filled out that conversation. The thought of Minnie, who was on the petite side of things and probably in her late forties, scolding James Robert Bradley was nothing short of hilarious.

She was safe, for now. Minnie was going to feed her and make sure she was warm. Thalia settled back into the comfy chair, her eyelids drooping as she watched the flames dance before her. She needed to figure out how to convince Bradley to listen to her without him throwing her out of the house. She needed a plan.

But first, she needed to rest. Just a little bit.

The Real Cowboy

CHAPTER ONE

Like the excerpt? Order the book!

February 2013 from Harlequin Desire
ISBN-10: 0373732244 ♦ ISBN-13: 978-0373732241
Order: Amazon | Powell’s  Indiebound

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