Read To Court a Cowgirl Online

Authors: Jeannie Watt

To Court a Cowgirl

Nothing can make her stay—not even Jason

Allie Brody decided long ago to leave the Lightning Creek Ranch in the past. She's lost too much there to want to call it home again. And coming back to help while her sister's away won't change her mind, either. Even if Jason Hudson makes her temporary visit more…palatable. As long as she sticks to short-term with the former pro-football player, what's the harm in their attraction?

It turns out everything is wrong with it. Helping each other only fogs Allie's plans for a no-strings fling. Sure, Jason signed up to help Allie rebuild her broken ranch—but he's determined to repair her heart, too. That's not on her agenda.

Welcome to Lightning Creek Ranch, nestled in the foothills of Montana's majestic Bitterroot Mountains, home to the strong-willed Brody family. Life isn't always easy on the Lightning Creek, but challenges are nothing new to the men and women who live and work here.

And there's something about the ranch, something in the beauty and solitude that works a kind of magic on those in need of a second shot at life...

Dear Reader,

When I wrote The Brodys of Lightning Creek miniseries, I saved the eldest sister's story for last because, unlike her siblings, Allie Brody has no great love for the family ranch. She lost her father on the Lightning Creek and her marriage imploded there. She'd have been quite happy to never set foot on the property again, but, of course, she doesn't get her wish. I sent her home to make peace with the ranch and face her problems—one of which turns out to be her former high school nemesis, a recently retired professional football player who doesn't put up with Allie's prickly ways.

After retiring from professional sports, local football legend Jason Hudson quickly realizes that his athletic career has in no way prepared him for the next phase of his life. Despite this obstacle, he knows what he wants to do and he'll find a way to do it—just as soon as his difficult father convalesces from a heart attack and he's free to leave the Eagle Valley.

Allie and Jason had me going in circles for a time. They were two of the most stubborn characters I've ever created and it wasn't easy making them realize that their carved-in-stone attitudes and plans were not the best attitudes and plans. Now that I'm done, I love their story and their happily-ever-after, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

Best wishes,

Jeannie Watt

JEANNIE
WATT

To Court a Cowgirl

Jeannie Watt
lives in Montana's beautiful Madison Valley, where she and her husband help manage the family cattle ranch. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, shopping for vintage patterns, reading and making mosaic mirrors. To find out more about Jeannie and her books, please visit her website at
jeanniewatt.com
.

Books by Jeannie Wat

HARLEQUIN SUPERROMANCE

The Brodys of Lightning Creek

To Tempt a Cowgirl
To Kiss a Cowgirl

The Montana Way

Once a Champion
Cowgirl in High Heels
All for a Cowboy

Too Many Cooks?

The Baby Truce
Undercover Cook
Just Desserts
Crossing Nevada
Maddie Inherits a Cowboy
Once and for All
Always a Temp
Cowboy Comes Back
A Cowboy's Redemption
Cop On Loan
The Brother Returns
The Horseman's Secret
A Difficult Woman

HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE

Montana Bull Riders

The Bull Rider Meets His Match

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CHAPTER ONE

“D
AD
, I'
M
NOT
going to work for Uncle Jim.” Jason Hudson didn't have all the answers regarding his immediate future, but he had not quit football to become a salesman. End of story.

“But Jimmy's your biggest fan,” Max Hudson protested.

“I thought you were my biggest fan,” Jason replied dryly.

“Immediate family notwithstanding.” Max leaned forward in his chair, the Dobermans sleeping on either side of him each opening a sleepy eye as the recliner squeaked. “You haven't even talked to him. You wouldn't be selling,” his father assured him. “You'd be managing.”

Because he had so much experience in that. No, he'd be smiling and glad-handing the people that came in to see the curiosity. Him.

“My degree is in physical therapy.”

“You have no experience with that, either.” Jason cocked an eyebrow and his dad's mouth shifted sideways. “On the giving end, I mean. Let's visit this later, okay?”

“I'm not a sales guy.” He was a former professional athlete heading into a new phase of his life earlier than expected. His original plan, subject to the whims of team management and performance stats, had been to play until he was up for free agency, but an injury-plagued season followed by his father's massive heart attack had changed that plan, and now here he was. Sitting in his dad's living room, being counseled on his future—which was not going to be in sales.

“You're staying in the area, though, right?”

“For now.” He didn't want to stress his dad and trigger another heart attack, but he wanted to be as honest as he could. Max wanted him nearby—perhaps so that he had someone besides his daughter, and Jason's sister, Kate, to boss around, and in the long run that wasn't going to work out. Jason and his dad had a relationship that at times bordered on adversarial, but he couldn't imagine life without the old man, so he'd come home to help his sister care for him while plotting a course for the next phase of his life.

“Then contact Ray Largent. Ask him about that property down the street. It'll sell fast, since it overlooks the lake.”

Jason smiled at his dad and got to his feet. The houses in their area were big and pricy and practically stacked one on top of the other. Not the way he liked to live. “I got a couple things to do. Kate's going to hang out with you.”

“See Ray,” his father called after him as he left the room.

Jason blew out a breath and grabbed his keys off the hook. Kate was due in fifteen minutes and his appointment with Ray Largent was in ten. According to the doctor, his dad didn't need a full-time caretaker but he did need someone close by, so Jason and Kate had decided that at least one of them would be there for the majority of the time. That didn't sit well with Max. He wanted his kids close. Very close. But not watching over him. No, he was supposed to be watching over
them
and since his illness, his need to intrude into their lives had increased markedly. Thus the visit to Ray, although not entirely for the reason his father had suggested. He wanted a property where he could disappear when he came back home; close enough to town to easily spend time with his dad, but not so close that they ended up at each other's throats. Like they always did.

Hopefully Ray could help him with that problem.

* * *

A
LLIE
B
RODY
NEVER
in a zillion years imagined herself moving back to the Lightning Creek Ranch, yet here she was, lugging her suitcase up the front steps of her childhood home. The place where her father died, the place where her marriage imploded.

She should have her head examined.

No. She should toughen up. Her relationship with the Lightning Creek had never been easy, but it was time for her to make peace with the family ranch, especially since her little sisters were hell-bent on living there, or nearby in the case of Dani, whose husband owned the Staley house a mile to the north.

Allie set down her suitcase on the newly painted porch and dug out the key from her pocket—the same key her mother entrusted to her seventeen years ago, after her father's untimely death from a heart attack, when she'd become second in command of the family. She drew in a breath and pushed open the door.

The house had been practically empty when she'd moved out after her divorce two years ago—what her ex-husband, Kyle, hadn't claimed as his own she'd sold to help pay her college expenses—but her sisters Dani and Jolie had once again filled the rooms of the house with furniture and bric-a-brac. Well, Jolie more than Dani. Her middle sister had been quite comfortable with one chair and a bed, pouring her money into savings for the giant indoor arena that now stood next to the larger of their two barns. But now Dani was on the other side of the country and Jolie was on the other side of the state. Mel, the second oldest of the four sisters, was in New Mexico, and Allie was right where she swore she would never be—on the ranch, trying to hold things together yet again until her sisters returned to take up the reins.

For a moment she stood near the door, wondering if she could do this.

Loss.

That was what this ranch, this house, represented to her. Deep and painful loss.

Allie put her hands to her temples. She was strong. She could do this. Take back this house. As she saw it, she had two choices—move into the Staley house and visit the ranch twice a day to feed and care for livestock, or man up, pour herself a shot of whiskey, toast the past and head into the future here. In this house. Her unwanted birthright. Her sisters had made peace with the ranch. In fact, they'd all thrived there. In the place where she'd lost her husband, they'd all three found theirs.

Allie walked into the kitchen, opened the cupboard next to the refrigerator and, sure enough, there was a bottle of Jameson right where she had left it during her brief Christmas visit. Her sisters were beer and wine women, but on the occasions she imbibed, she was whiskey all the way, and right now only one small thing stood between herself and toasting the past. A shot glass.

After a few minutes of futile searching, Allie reached for a water tumbler. A glass was a glass and all that really mattered was the amount of alcohol poured in. Granted, a toast to the future in a water glass lacked the panache of tossing back a shot, but one had to work with what was at hand.

She carried the bottle and glass into the living room and set them on the sideboard beneath one of her more colorful oil paintings—a painting that had been stored in the attic with several others until Jolie moved home. Truth be told, Allie wasn't wild about having her artwork back on the walls, but kept her mouth shut because she didn't live at the ranch permanently and her sisters viewed her artwork differently than she did. Maybe it was good to have it up—another way to face the past, acknowledge and move on.

She opened the bottle and had just started to pour when the sound of footsteps on the front porch startled her, causing her to slosh a healthy amount of liquid both into the glass and onto the table.

What the hell? Or rather who the hell?

The Lightning Creek was not on the road to anywhere, except for the vacant Staley house, so anyone who was at the ranch had come for a specific purpose. She only hoped it was a friendly one.

Allie set down the bottle and crossed the living room, tamping down stirrings of apprehension. She paused at the window to peer out through the crack between the curtains, then took a quick step back. The guy on her porch was, in a word, big. He also seemed oddly familiar, even though Allie was fairly certain she didn't know anyone that tall. Then it struck her.

Jason Hudson?

No. Way.

But when she peeked through the curtains again, it was indeed the hometown hero on the other side of her door. She'd just seen him on TV a few days ago in a campy commercial, doing the wide-receiver thing, catching pizzas thrown by his quarterback. So what was he doing on her porch?

It had to be a lost dog or something.

She unlocked the door and pulled it open, tilting her head back to meet Jason's gaze. He smiled at her. “Hi, Allie. Jason Hudson. I assume you remember me?”

She did. She remembered him using that crooked smile and charming expression to get pretty much anything he wanted after he and his wealthy California family had arrived in the Eagle Valley at the beginning of her junior year—including the valedictorian scholarship that should have been hers. She no longer held a grudge, but at the time she'd been outraged that when their GPAs had tied, he'd been given the top spot and she'd received salutatorian. She'd done a lot more extra curriculars...but he'd helped them win the state football championship. Sports topped good work.

“I do,” she said. Who in this town didn't? Their big claim to fame—a professional football player. She took hold of the edge of the door as she gave him a once-over. He was taller than she remembered and solidly built, which was to be expected given his profession. He was also better looking than he'd been back in the day. His face had developed some fascinating planes and angles and his once blond hair had gone dark, which only seemed to make his eyes seem bluer. A charmer and a looker. Allie was no longer impressed by either description, but that didn't mean she wasn't affected by the guy's sheer masculinity. It was all she could do to keep from swallowing dryly.

“What can I do for you?”

He cocked his head. “Any chance I could talk to you for a few minutes?”

“Sure.” She stepped back and let him come into the living room, figuring it was unlikely that a recently retired football player was there to do her bodily harm. Besides, they had once been in chess club together—not that he'd ever deigned to speak to her. They had traveled in different social spheres, with the exception of chess club.

“Nice place,” he said, looking around.

She shrugged and said thank you, even if it was all her sisters' doing. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

“Your ranch, actually.”

The first red flag popped up. “What about it?”

“I, uh...” He frowned a little as one corner of his mouth quirked. Allie followed his gaze straight to the glass with the splash of amber liquid in the bottom sitting in a puddle of whiskey next to the bottle itself. She looked back at him, raising an eyebrow, daring him to say something. Anything. Like “wow, that's a giant whiskey glass.”

He did not. Not on the subject of the whiskey anyway. “I heard that you've recently considered selling the ranch.”

Allie's chin slowly rose as her eyes narrowed. “Where'd you hear that?”

“Ray Largent.”

Her insides went cold at the mention of her ex-father-in-law. “The ranch isn't for sale,” she said abruptly. How many ways could her ex-in-laws come up with to try and get this place away from her? And how was Kyle going to cash in on this?

“I understand that.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked, no longer caring about politeness or the fact that he was even hotter than he'd been back in the day.

“To let you know if you decided to sell, I'd be interested.”

“All right,” she said in a clipped voice. “If we decide to sell, I'll let you know.”

“I appreciate that.” He shifted his weight. The silence stretched, then he said, “I'm moving back to the Eagle Valley to be closer to the family. My dad had a pretty serious heart attack.”

Was he making small talk or playing the sympathy card? Either way she wasn't biting.

“I'm certain you can find a suitable acreage to buy.”

“No doubt. This ranch is close to Dad's place, but not too close, if you know what I mean.”

Dad's place. One of those monstrosities overlooking the lake at the center of the valley. Allie lifted a shoulder. “Sorry. And not to be rude, but I was in the middle of something.”

His eyes strayed to the bottle and Allie felt her color rise, even though she told herself she owed him no explanation. “Then I won't take up any more of your time.”

She saw him to the door, closed it behind him, waited until she heard his car engine start before she headed back to her whiskey. After putting the stopper in the top, she took the bottle to the kitchen and resolutely stowed it away on the shelf. Then she returned to the living room, lifted the glass from the puddle and sipped the small amount of liquid in the glass—not as a toast to the past, but to still her nerves.

She didn't know what was going on here. How the Largents and the Hudsons were involved, but once again the Largents were after her ranch and she wasn't going to put up with it. And to send the golden boy...

She tossed back the rest of the whiskey.

* * *

“T
HANK
GOODNESS
YOU
'
RE
HOME
.” His sister, Kate, spoke in a low voice as Jason came in the back door. “I need someone to distract Dad.”

Jason smiled even though he didn't feel much like smiling. There was something about his conversation with Allie Brody that stayed with him—something beyond being told no, the ranch wasn't for sale. “That's what you're here for.”

Kate blew out a breath. “My life has just been thoroughly evaluated—for the third or fourth time this month. Your turn now.”

“I already had my turn today.”

“That you, JD?” his father called.

Kate gave him a push toward the living room. “Go and get counseled.”

Jason went to the fridge and pulled out a beer. Paternal counseling, especially for the second time in one day, went down easier with alcohol. He popped the top, tilted the can at his sister with a wry smile and then headed to the living room. Behind him he heard the fridge door open again and another top popping.

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