Authors: RaeAnne Thayne
So much for that idea.
The kiss had stunned him.
That was the only word for the torrent of emotions it had sent tumbling through himâtenderness and protectiveness and a raw, hot need. He wanted to pull her close, safeguard her from whatever had put that lost look in her eyes, keep her safe and warm andâ¦loved.
was the one who was scared. What was he thinking, kissing a soft, fragile, forever kind of woman like her? She deserved far better than a rough lawman with wild blood running through his veins.
Trouble was, he didn't want to stay away from
. Damn his hide, he wanted her more than everâ¦.
Silhouette Intimate Moments
The Wrangler and the Runaway Mom
The Valentine Two-Step
Taming Jesse James
lives in a graceful old Victorian nestled in the rugged mountains of northern Utah, along with her husband and two young children. Her books have won numerous honors, including several Readers' Choice awards and a RITA Award nomination by the Romance Writers of America. RaeAnne loves to hear from readers. She can be reached through her Web site at www.raeannethayne.com or at P.O. Box 6682, North Logan, UT 84341.
To Maureen Green, Chris Christensen, Jennifer Black and Carrie Robinson, my sisters and my best friends. For all the clothes, parenting tips, yard sales and side-aching, milk-out-of-your-nose laughfests we've shared over the years. I love you!
esse James Harte was in deep, deep trouble.
“You playin' or are you just gonna sit there lookin' pretty?” the scrappier of his two opponents asked with a fearless smirk.
Jesse glared at his cards, trying to figure out his options. They didn't look any cheerier than they had a few moments ago.
“Come on. We're waitin'.”
“Yeah, yeah. Hold your water.” He looked at his hand one last time, then back at the two troublemakers across the table from him. His throat was parched and he needed a drink in the worst way, but he didn't dare turn his back on these two desperadoes. Not for a second. The two of them were as terrifying as any hardened criminal he'd ever come up against.
Finally he knew he would have to do something, and quick. He set down the only possible card he couldâjack of hearts. As soon as it left his hand, he knew it
was a mistake. A triumphant shout rang through the room and a queen of hearts slapped onto his jack.
His niece Lucy gave a shriek of excitement. “Ha! That was her last card. You lose, Uncle Jess! Told ya you'd never be able to beat Dylan at crazy eights. She's the best. The absolute best.”
“The winner and still undefeated champ-i-on!” Dylan Webster, Lucy's stepsister of less than a month, jumped from the chair across from his desk and did a little hip-jiggling victory dance around his office.
Jesse leaned back in his chair and watched their celebratory gyrations out of narrowed eyes. “You cheated. I can't figure out how, but you must have cheated. Worse than a couple of Wild West card sharks, that's what you are. Come in here after school acting all sweet and innocent, saying you just stopped in to say hello, and then you bilk me out of two Snickers bars. You think I don't know what's going on?”
Dylan batted her eyes at him. “Who, us? Would we do something like that?” That one was going to be a heartbreaker just like her mom, when she put on a few more years.
“I ought to lock you both up right now and throw away the key,” Jesse growled. “Teach you to mess with the Salt River chief of police.”
The girls just giggled at him.
“Come on. Best two out of three.” He scooped up the cards and started shuffling them. “Better yet, I'll teach you how to play a real game. How about blackjack?”
“We already know how to play,” Dylan assured him.
“How about acey-deucy? No? Sit back down, then.” He did a fancy little flourish with the cards that sent
them cascading between his hands in a rainbow. His little card trick was rewarded with two pairs of wide eyes.
“Cool!” Lucy exclaimed. “Where'd you learn to do that?”
“Years of practice, beating the pants off your dad. He stinks at cards. Always has. And you can tell him I said so, too.” He grinned and she giggled back.
“Will you teach me how to do it?”
“Sure, if you give me the first bite of that Snickers bar.”
Before she could answer, a knock sounded at the door.
His dispatcher, receptionist and all-around pain in the neck shoved open the door and stood in the doorway, all four feet ten inches of her.
“Chief, you got company,” Lou Montgomery barked.
“Says it's important.”
“Send him in, then.”
“Her,” a new voice interjected. Compared to Lou's rotgut-rough voice, this one was as soft and smooth as water rippling over rocks. He knew that voice. He opened his mouth to answer, but before he could, the girls beat him to it.
“Ms. McKenzie!” they shrieked in unison, and rushed to greet his visitor, their fourth-grade teacher. She gave them a strained smile but accepted their hugs graciously.
“What are you doing here?” Dylan asked.
The pretty teacher looked uncomfortable. “Iâ¦I just had some business to discuss with Chief Harte.”
Something she obviously didn't want to share with two nosy little girls. Before the terrible twosome could interrogate her about it, Jesse stepped in. “Ladies, I'll have to take a raincheck on the poker lessons. Aren't you supposed to be cleaning out the stalls at the clinic, anyway?”
They both groaned, but picked up their backpacks. “Bye, Ms. McKenzie,” they chimed in unison.
“Thanks for the Snickers bars.” Dylan smirked at Jesse on her way out the door.
As soon as they left, Ms. McKenzie raised a delicate eyebrow at him. “Poker lessons?”
Despite that sexy voice of hers, the schoolmarm tone still made him feel as if he'd just been caught throwing spitballs. He cleared his throat. “Uh, guilty. What can I say? I'm a bad influence. Sit down. How can I help you?”
After a brief hesitation, she walked across the office with that slight, barely perceptible limp that had been driving him crazy with curiosity since she'd moved to town at the beginning of the school year.
She slipped into the chair across the desk from him and folded her hands carefully on her lap, her green eyes focused on some point just to the left of his face.
He fought the urge to look over his shoulder to see what she found so fascinating back there. Judging by their few brief encounters since her arrival in Salt River eight months ago, he had the uncomfortable feeling she wasn't looking at anything in particular, just away from him.
For some reason, he seemed to make Sarah McKenzie nervous, although for the life of him he couldn't figure out what he'd done to her.
The last time he'd seen her had been nearly a month
ago at his brother Matt's wedding to Dylan's mother, Ellie. At the reception the schoolteacher hadn't moved from the corner for most of the evening. In a pale peach dress and with all that sun-streaked blond hair piled on top of her head, she'd looked cool and remote and scrumptious enough to gobble up in one bite.
When he'd finally decided to ignore her blatant back-off signals and asked her to dance, she'd stared at him as if he had just dumped a glass of champagne all over her, then topped it off by stomping on her fingers.
She hadn't said anything for several painfully long moments, then she had jumped to her feet and stammered some excuse about how she needed to check on something. Next thing he'd known, he'd seen her driving out of the church parking lot as if she was trying to outgun a tornado.
He pushed the memory away. So the pretty, enigmatic Ms. McKenzie didn't want to dance with him. So what? He was a big boy now and could handle a little rejection once in a while. His little sister, Cassidy, probably would have said it was good for him.
Not that any of that had a thing to do with the reason she was sitting in front of him trying not to wring her hands together nervously.
“Is there something I can help you with, Ms. McKenzie?” he asked again, in his best casual, friendly-policeman voice.
She drew in a breath, then let it out in a rush. “I want you to arrest someone.”
It was the last thing he expected her to say. “You do?”
Her soft, pretty mouth tightened. “Well, I'd prefer if you could drag him behind a horse for a few hundred
miles. But since I don't think that's very likely to happen, given civil rights and all, I suppose I'll have to settle for seeing the miserable excuse for a man locked away for the rest of his natural life.”
“Does this miserable excuse for a man have a name?”
She hesitated for just a few beats, just long enough to nudge his curiosity up to fever pitch. “Yes,” she finally said coolly. “Yes, he does have a name. Seth Garrett.”
His jaw dropped. “The mayor? You want me to arrest the mayor?”
“I don't care if he's the president of the United States. He belongs in jail.”
He leaned back in his chair. “Care to tell me why, before I rush over there with my handcuffs? I'm not saying I won't do itâI'd just like to be able to give the man a reason.”
She stood up, her hands clenched tightly into fists and a glare on those delicate, fine-boned features. “This is not a laughing matter, Chief Harte. If you refuse to take me seriously, I'llâ¦I'll find someone who will. The FBI, maybe, or the Wyoming State Police.”
She was serious! She wanted him to march into the mayor's office and haul him off to jail. What could she possibly have against Seth Garrett, one of the most well liked and respected men in town? He doubted the man even jaywalked.
Still, he knew she wouldn't have come here without a reason, and it was his job to listen to it. “I'm sorry, ma'am. You just took me by surprise, that's all. I didn't mean to make light of this. Sit down. What do you think he's done?”
Sarah slid into the chair again and knotted her hands
together tightly. She wasn't sure what was more to blame for their tremblingâthis seething fury writhing around inside her or the sick lump in her stomach at having to face the man in front of her.
know she shouldn't have come here. Jesse Harte made her so blasted nervous she couldn't think straight, and she had known before she even walked into his office that she would make a mess of this.
In the past eighteen months she had worked hard to overcome the lingering fragments of nightmare that haunted her. She wanted to think she had become almost functional again, hiding the worst of her panic attacks behind a veneer of control.
But for some reason Jesse Harte always seemed to punch a hole in the paper-thin wall of that facade, leaving her nervous and upset.
It wasn't him, exactly. Or, at least, she didn't think so. He seemed gentle enough with the girls. It was kind of sweet, actually, to see such a hard-edged cop teasing giggles out of two ten-year-old girls.
For a month she hadn't been able to shake the image of him in his dark Western-cut suit at his brother's wedding, dancing with each of the girls in turn and looking big and solid and completely masculine.
That was most of what made her nervous. He was just so big. So completely, wholly maleâintimidating just by his very size and by the aura of danger that surrounded him.
With the combination of that dark-as-sin hair, those startling blue eyes and that wicked smile, Jesse Harte drew the lustful eye of every woman in town. If it weren't for the badge on his tan denim shirt, it would be difficult to remember he was on the right side of the law. All he needed was a bushy mustache and a low-
slung gun belt hanging on his hips to look like the outlaw she heard he was named for.
He sent her nerves skittering just by looking at her out of those blue eyes and she hated it, but she had no one else to turn to. She had a child to protect, and if that meant facing her own personal bogeyman, she would force herself to do it, no matter the cost.
Besides her unease around the police chief, it didn't help her nerves to know she could be risking her job. When she had taken her concerns to the principal, Chuck Hendricks had ordered her to leave well enough alone. She was imagining things, he said, making problems for herself where she didn't need to.
It was a grim reminder of what had happened in Chicago. She had been warned then about stepping in where she had no business. But then, just as now, she hadn't had a choice.
“Can I get you a glass of water or something?”
She blinked and realized the police chief was waiting for some kind of an explanation for her presence here. “No. No, thank you. I'm fine.”
“You ready to talk now?”
She took a deep breath, then met his gaze directly for the first time since she'd entered his office. “Mr. Garrett's stepson is in my class.”
“I take it you know him.”
Despite her worries over Corey, that blasted smile of his sent her stomach fluttering. “This is a small town, Ms. McKenzie. Not much slips by the eagle eye of the Salt River P.D. What's Corey done now?”
“Oh, no. He hasn't done anything.”
He chuckled wryly. “That's a first.”
“What do you mean?”
“Only that the boy's had his share of run-ins with local authorities.”
Another person might have asked what possible crimes a child of ten could have committed to bring him to the attention of the local police chief. Not Sarah. She had seen much, much worse than Corey Sylvester could even contemplate. In Chicago, children as young as eight dealt drugs and sold their bodies on street corners and murdered each other for sport.
She thought of a pretty girl with glossy braids and old, tired eyes, then pushed the memory aside.
This was rural Wyoming, where children still played kick-the-can on a warm spring night and the most excitement to be found was at the high school baseball diamond.
That's why she had come here, to find peace. To immerse herself in the slow, serene pace of small-town life.
“Corey has done nothing,” she assured the police chief. “He's a troubled young boy and Iâ¦I believe I know why.”
“I'm assuming this has something to do with his stepfather, otherwise you wouldn't be here looking for the mayor's head on a platter, right?”
Her jaw clenched as she remembered what she'd seen at school that day. “Corey has all the characteristics of an abused child. I believe his stepfather is the one abusing him.”
Chief Harte leaned forward, suddenly alert as an alpha wolf scenting danger. She started to shrink back in her chair, but quickly checked the movement. She wouldn't cower. Not if she could help it.
“That's a very serious allegation, Ms. McKenzie. You have any evidence to back that up?”
She felt sick all over again just thinking about it. “Corey's been in my class for two weeks now andâ”
He interrupted her with a frown. “Only two weeks? School's out in another month. Why would he transfer into your class so late in the year when the session's almost over?”
Because he'd gone through all three of the other fourth-grade teachers and each one refused to allow him back into her class. She was his last stop on the road before expulsion.