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Authors: Sheri WhiteFeather

Once a Rebel

Praise for Sheri WhiteFeather:

“WhiteFeather delivers hot sex, spicy sexual tension and pure old-fashioned love.”

—
Romantic Times

“Not only does Ms. WhiteFeather…turn a phrase with considerable ease, she also delivers top-notch characterization and complex emotional development to create a pleasurable reading experience.”

—
Romantic Times

“This book pushed the envelope right to the edge of the table and let it hang in precarious balance. The premise is edgy and sexy and the story is executed to perfection. The characters grabbed me by the heartstrings with their very emotional conflicts. The intensity of their attraction for each other nearly set the book on fire….”

—
Writers Unlimited

“…this steamy, hot romance is fantastically written…the love scenes are passionate enough to ignite the pages. Ms. WhiteFeather knows her audience well and writes in a way to capture their attention while allowing them to ‘fall' into the careful plotting and secrets of each character.”

—
Writers Unlimited

Don't miss Signature Select's exciting series:

The Fortunes of Texas: Reunion

get swept up in twelve new stories from your favorite family!

COWBOY AT MIDNIGHT by Ann Major

A BABY CHANGES EVERYTHING by Marie Ferrarella

IN THE ARMS OF THE LAW by Peggy Moreland

LONE STAR RANCHER by Laurie Paige

THE GOOD DOCTOR by Karen Rose Smith

THE DEBUTANTE by Elizabeth Bevarly

KEEPING HER SAFE by Myrna Mackenzie

THE LAW OF ATTRACTION by Kristi Gold

ONCE A REBEL by Sheri WhiteFeather

MILITARY MAN by Marie Ferrarella

FORTUNE'S LEGACY by Maureen Child

THE RECKONING by Christie Ridgway

SHERI WHITEFEATHER
Once a Rebel

Dear Reader,

In 1999, the year my first book was published, the original
Fortunes of Texa
s was in full swing. I wasn't part of the original series, but like most of you, I was enthralled with the Fortune family. And now here I am, all these years later, participating in the reunion.

If you're curious about my hero and heroine, here's the scoop. Ethan Eldridge, a large-animal vet, heals wounded creatures, and Susan Fortune, a psychologist, dedicates her life to troubled teens. Together, they create magic. At least for me. While writing their story, I consulted my own family: two open-minded teenagers and a veterinary technician husband who gave me his textbooks for research.

The other authors on this series were wonderful. The ladies who live in Texas shared information about the Lone Star State, and on top of that, Karen Rose Smith was gracious enough to send me a signed copy of her original Fortune book, with pages marked for reference. I was especially captivated by Ryan and Lily Fortune, returning characters that play a significant role in my story.

I hope you find THE FORTUNES OF TEXAS: REUNION an engaging experience, stories to treasure for years to come.

Love,

Sheri WhiteFeather

To Patience Smith (our amazing editor) and the other authors on this series—seeing you in Dallas was a blast. To those of you who weren't able to be there, we missed you.

One

S
usan Fortune approached the barn, the weathered wood calling to her like an old friend, stirring scattered memories, making them swirl in her mind.

In the past seventeen years she hadn't been home much. She'd returned now and then, but always in a rush, a day or two at Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. But being back in Red Rock, Texas, back on the Double Crown Ranch, felt different this time.

Because this wasn't a harried holiday weekend, a fast-paced trip she'd crammed into her busy schedule. This was the real thing. A homecoming that turned her heart inside out.

Her cousin Ryan, the Fortune family patriarch, was dying.

Susan moved closer to the barn, the slightly chilled, early February air stinging her skin. She'd spent the most important time of her life, her senior year in high school, on the Double Crown. Ryan had taken her in after her alcohol-enraged father had kicked her out. He'd offered her a place to stay, a place to feel loved, a home away from home, from the turbulence that had nearly destroyed her.

And now here she was, wishing she could save Ryan, but knowing she couldn't.

Reflective, she looked around, watching the ranch hands do their jobs. And then a tall, tanned man in rugged denims, with a straw cowboy hat dipped low on his forehead, exited the barn. He strode toward a white dually, and suddenly she couldn't breathe, every ounce of oxygen in her lungs refusing to cooperate.

Was that Ethan Eldridge?

Yes, she told herself. It had to be. He'd grown bigger, broader, more masculine, but she recognized him just the same. Even the way he wore his clothes bred familiarity. A hand-tooled belt that he'd probably made himself was threaded through his jeans, and the hem of each pant leg frayed around a pair of weather-beaten boots. When he adjusted his hat in a memorable manner, her girlhood dreams went up in a cloud of pheromone-scented smoke.

She hadn't seen him since they were teenagers, since she'd pined for him like the emotionally torn, desperate-for-affection female she'd been.

Should she call his name? Get his attention before he climbed into his truck and drove away?

Or would that make her look foolish? Susan For
tune, the reformed bad girl, flaunting herself in front of Ethan Eldridge all over again.

Unsure of what to do, she simply stood where she was, the wind whipping her hair across her cheek. But before she could come to a decision, Ethan reacted to her presence. Like a solitary animal, a cougar sensing an intruder, he slowed his pace and turned around.

Leaving Susan exposed to his gaze.

Chiding herself, she smoothed her hair, batting it away from her face. She wasn't reverting to promiscuity. If anything, she was able to diagnose her teenage self, the rebellious girl who'd paraded other boys in front of Ethan. Susan understood the wild child that had festered inside her. She'd graduated from Stanford and earned a Ph.D. in psychology.

She decided to greet him with a friendly yet noncommittal hello, so she started off in his direction, cutting across the dirt path that separated them. But as she analyzed his catlike posture, she realized that he hadn't identified her.

He had no idea who she was.

Beneath the brim of his hat, his eyebrows furrowed. A frown of curiosity, she thought. A country boy wondering why a citified blonde, dressed in designer jeans and a form-fitting blazer, was determined to talk to him.

Finally when they were face-to-face, with sights, sounds and smells of the ranch spinning around them, recognition dawned in his eyes.

Those stunning blue eyes.

“Susan?” He beat her to the punch, saying her name first.

“Ethan.” She extended her hand, preparing to touch him. “It's good to see you.”

“You, too.” He accepted her hand, enveloping it with callused fingers.

They gazed at each other, silence sizzling between them. She could feel the soundless energy zapping the air, conjuring invisible fireflies.

So much for her Ph.D.

Suddenly she was a smitten seventeen-year-old, reliving the day they'd met. He had been a ranch hand's hardworking, properly reared son, and she had been as untamed as the Texas terrain, a lost girl aching for attention. So much so, she'd parked her butt on a fence rail, as close to him as possible. Then she'd unbuttoned the top of her blouse, complaining about the heat, trying to get him to look at her.

He did, but only for a second. Just long enough to stop working and offer her a bottle of water. His water. A plastic container he'd yet to open, to drink from.

An elusive boy. A gallant gesture.

In her young, needy soul, Susan had fallen like a ton of shattered bricks, wanting Ethan even more. But she'd never gotten him. Nothing. Not even a kiss.

“I'm sorry about what's happening to Ryan,” he said, bringing her back to the present. “You know how much I care about him.”

She nodded. Ethan had practically grown up on the Double Crown. He knew Ryan well. “He's such a good man. Everyone loves him.”

“I'm sure he's glad to have you home.”

Home.
The word never failed to strike her heart.
She'd lived with her parents in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston, until Ryan took her in. Sixteen years in Katy and one year in Red Rock. Yet Red Rock would always seem like home, even though she'd moved away from Texas altogether.

Ethan shifted his stance, drawing her attention to his tall, muscular form. He'd been lean and wiry as a teenager, a boy who'd spent all of his free time with the animals on the ranch.

“Ryan told me you became a large-animal vet,” she said.

“And he told me you became a child psychologist.” A smile ghosted across his lips. “I guess we both grew up, didn't we?”

“Yes, we did.” As a girl, she used to dream about that uneven smile. Slow and sexy, she thought. One corner of his mouth tilting in a lazy sort of way.

Caught up in the moment, she stole a glance at his left hand. The last she'd heard, he was single, but that was a few years ago. She hadn't made a habit of grilling Ryan about him.

When she noticed the absence of a ring, she sighed. Ethan was thirty-five, the same age as she was, and she'd never married, either. But her work was her priority, the heartbeat of her existence.

Did Ethan feel that way, too? Or was she jumping to conclusions? Just because he didn't wear a ring didn't mean he wasn't involved in a committed relationship. Or that he wasn't looking for a partner, someone to share the ups and downs in his life.

“Did you just get here today?” he asked.

“Yes.” She told herself to quit psychoanalyzing him, to leave her textbook curiosity at the curb. “I arrived this morning.” She flipped her wrist and checked her watch. “A few hours ago. Ryan is taking a nap, so I decided to go for a walk.”

“How's Lily holding up?”

“She's doing the best she can. When I left the house, she was fussing in the kitchen, giving herself something to do.” Lily was Ryan's third wife, a woman he'd loved since his youth but hadn't married until many years later.

The wind rustled Ethan's shirt. “How long are you going to stay?”

“I'm not sure. But I'm hoping to help everyone get through this.” She noticed the expressive lines around his mouth, the aging process that had altered his features, cutting masculine grooves into his skin.

He reminded her of a model in a cowboy ad. The stereotyped Texan, with his hard-angled cheekbones, slightly crooked nose and lightly peppered jaw. But she knew he was real.

Tangible. Touchable. Flesh and blood.

Even after all these years she still wondered what it would feel like to kiss him.

When she lifted her gaze to his, he dipped his hat even lower, shielding his eyes.

Just like old times, she thought. She'd never been able to break through Ethan's defenses. Even though he'd been attracted to her, he'd kept his distance, making her long for him even more.

Not that she would let herself long for him now.
Kissing him, or even fantasizing about it, would be a mistake.

“You must be working today,” she said, trying to resume a casual conversation.

“Yes, I am. But I live here, too.”

She started. “On the Double Crown?”

“It's only temporary. I'm in between homes right now, so I'm renting the hunting cabin from Ryan.” He gestured to the barn. “Of course I'm boarding my horses here, too.”

From what she recalled, Ethan had been living on the rough-and-tumble property his father owned. Although she wondered why he was moving, she decided not to ask, not to delve too deeply into his affairs, even if she wanted to, even if everything about him still intrigued her. “I've never been inside the hunting cabin.”

“Really?” He shifted his feet, scattering dirt beneath his heels. “There isn't much to see, but you can come by later if you want to.”

Surprised by the invitation, Susan didn't know what to say. He'd never asked her to visit him before. He'd never encouraged her advances. Of course, this time she wasn't falling all over him. At least not outwardly. Inside, her heart was skipping girlish beats.

“Thanks,” she finally managed.

“Sure.”

While silence stretched between them, the wind kicked up, the scent of hay and horses triggering her senses. In the distance cattle grazed, like colored dots on the horizon.

“I better go,” he said. “I have an appointment on another ranch.”

She told herself to relax, to not make a big deal out of his offer. “It was nice talking to you, Ethan.”

“You, too,” he told her.

He climbed behind the wheel of his white dually, and she watched him start the engine. Within no time, he was gone.

The boy with the slow, sexy smile.

She returned to the house and headed for the kitchen, where she found Lily, bustling around the stove.

Susan stood in the doorway, admiring the woman Ryan had married. Even at fifty-nine, Lily had the power to turn heads. Long limbed and voluptuous, she wore a mint-colored sweater and a loose skirt, attire that was as unpretentious as her style. Her midnight hair was fastened into a simple twist, leaving the angles of her face unframed.

“That smells good,” Susan said, indicating the pot of broth simmering on the stove.

Lily looked up, her large, exotic-shaped eyes radiating warmth. “It's corn soup. An old Apache recipe.”

Which made sense, considering Lily was part Apache and part Spanish.

Susan moved farther into the kitchen and watched as Lily mixed several pounds of boiled, shredded beef with a homemade batch of acorn meal. She suspected that Lily had taken her time, peeling the acorns and grinding them, a task that was meant to keep her mind off Ryan's illness, especially on this gloomy morning.

A second later Lily took a shaky breath, then glanced out the window as though someone were stalking her. And why not? Susan knew that a man named Jason
Jamison, a cold-blooded killer, had been threatening the family. Of course Ryan had hired a security team to protect them. He wouldn't leave something like that to chance.

“Are you okay?” she asked Lily.

“I'm fine. Just jittery, that's all. There's so much to deal with right now.” She turned away from the window. “Will you check on Ryan? And if he's awake, will you tell him that I'll bring him some soup later?”

“Sure. But if you need someone to talk to, I'm here.”

“I know.” Lily gave her a brave smile. “I'm glad you're staying with us. I like having you around.”

Her heart bumped her chest, filling her with a sense of longing, of family, of home and hearth. Lily hadn't been Ryan's wife when Susan had lived on the Double Crown, but she'd gotten to know her later. Mostly from trips Ryan and Lily had taken to San Francisco, where they'd traveled to visit her.

“Thank you,” Susan told her. “That means a lot to me.”

Lily nodded, and they simply gazed at each other, caught in a soundless moment.

After the older woman resumed her task, adding the beef and acorn meal to the broth, Susan left the kitchen, her emotions tugging at her sleeve.

She walked through the great room, her boots echoing on tiled floors, as restless as the Fortune empire ghosts.

Over the years, the house, a traditional adobe structure, had undergone quite a few renovations. At one point it had been divided into two separate wings, where Ryan and his older brother, Cameron, lived with their
families. But Susan knew that Cameron had died over ten years ago, leaving Ryan to pick up the pieces of his brother's lazy yet tremulous life.

She headed to Ryan and Lily's room, a master suite with a private bathroom, hot tub and sauna. The door leading to the sitting area was open, a sign that her cousin was awake. She knocked anyway, a light tap to announce her presence.

“Come in,” he called out.

She entered the room and saw him sitting on a small sofa near the fireplace. To Susan, Ryan had always seemed larger than life, an invincible force with his solid frame and darkly handsome features. But an inoperable brain tumor had challenged his strength, creating symptoms he could no longer hide.

“How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Better now that you're here.”

He patted the cushion next to him, and she moved forward. He didn't look particularly refreshed from his nap, but she was grateful that he was coherent. Earlier, he'd been too dizzy to converse with her.

She sat down and took his hand, holding it gently in hers. “I love you.”

A smile wobbled his mouth. “I love you, too, little girl.”

“I'm not little anymore.”

He gave her hand a light squeeze. “You're still my baby.”

She wanted to ask him about Jason Jamison, to discuss the details, but she didn't want to alert him that his beloved wife was fretting in the kitchen, looking over her shoulder every chance she got. Sooner or later Susan
would learn everything there was to know about Jason. Both of her brothers had warned her about this man, suggesting that she talk to Ryan about him. Which she intended to do, just not now.

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