Three rugged cowboys from the Lone Star State appear in a one-volume collection of three popular romance novels--Calhoun, Justin, and Tyler. Reprint.
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Diana Palmer has published over seventy-five bestselling Silhouette books and has over forty-two million copies of her books in print.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Abby couldn't help looking over her shoulder from time to time as she stood in line at the theater ticket counter. She'd escaped by telling Justin that she was going to see an art exhibit. Calhoun, thank God, was off somewhere buying more cattle, although he was certain to be home later this evening. When he found out where his ward had been, he'd be furious. She almost grinned at her own craftiness.
Well, it took craftiness to deal with Calhoun Ballenger. He and Justin, his older brother, had taken Abby in when she'd been just fifteen. They would have been her stepbrothers, except that an untimely car accident had killed their father and Abby's mother just two days before the couple were to have gotten married. There hadn't been any other family, so Calhoun had proposed that he and Justin assume responsibility for the heartbroken teenager, Abigail Clark. And they did. It was legal, of course; technically Abby was Calhoun's ward. The problem was that she couldn't make Calhoun realize that she was a woman.
Abby sighed. That was a problem, all right. And to make it even worse, he'd gone crazy on the subject of protecting her from the world. For the past four months it had been a major ordeal just to go out on a date. The way he stood watch over her was getting almost comical. Justin rarely smiled, but Calhoun's antics brought him close to it.
Calhoun's attitude didn't amuse Abby, though. She was desperately in love with Calhoun, but the big blond man still looked upon her as a child. And despite her frequent attempts to show Calhoun that she was a woman, she couldn't seem to get through his armor.
She shifted restlessly. She had no idea of how to attract a man like Calhoun in the first place. He wasn't as much of a rounder now as he had been in his youth, but she knew that he was frequently seen in nightclubs in San Antonio with one sophisticated beauty or another. And here was Abby, dying of love for him. She wasn't sophisticated or beautiful. She was a rather plain country girl, not the sort to immediately draw men's eyes, even though her figure was better than average.
After brooding over the problem, she had come up with a solution. If she could manage to get sophisticated, he might notice her. Going to a strip show wasn't exactly the best first step, but in Jacobsville it was a good start. Just being seen here would show Calhoun that she wasn't the little prude he thought she was. When he found out about it—and eventually he would hear she'd attended the show.
Abby smoothed the waistline of her pretty gray plaid skirt. She was wearing a pale yellow blouse with it, and her long, wavy brown hair was in a neat chignon. Her hair, when it was loose, was one of her best assets. It was thick and silky. And her eyes weren't bad. They were big, quiet grayish-blue eyes, and she was blessed with a peaches-and-cream complexion and a perfect bow of a mouth. But without careful makeup she was hopelessly plain. Her breasts were bigger than she wanted them to be, her legs longer than she would have liked. She had friends who were small and dainty, and they made her feel like a beanpole. She glanced down at herself miserably. If only she were petite and exquisitely beautiful.
At least she did look older and more sophisticated than usual in her burgundy velour jacket, and her blue-gray eyes sparkled as she thought about what she was doing. Well, it wasn't so bad for a woman to go to a male dance revue, was it? She had to get educated somehow, and God knew Calhoun wasn't about to let her date any men who knew the score. He saw to it that her only escorts were boys her own age, and he screened every one and made casual remarks about how often he cleaned his guns and what he thought about "fooling around before marriage." It wasn't really surprising to Abby that few of her dates came back.
She shivered a little in the cold night air. It was February, and cold even in south Texas. As she huddled in her jacket, she smiled at another young woman shivering in the long line outside the Grand Theater. It was the only theater in Jacobsville, and there had been some opposition to having this kind of entertainment come to town. But in the end there had been surprisingly few complaints, and there was a long line of women waiting to see if these men lived up to the publicity.
Wouldn't Calhoun just die when he found out what she'd done? She grinned. His blond-streaked brown hair would stand on end, and his dark eyes would glare at her furiously. Justin would do what he always did—he'd go out and dig postholes while Calhoun wound down. The two brothers looked a lot alike, except that Justin's hair was almost black. They both had dark eyes, and they were both tall, muscular men. Calhoun was by far the handsomer of the two. Justin had a craggy face and a reticent personality, and although he was courteous to women, he never dated anybody. Almost everybody knew why—Shelby Jacobs had thrown him over years ago, refusing to marry him.
That had been when the Ballengers had still been poor, before Justin's business sense and Calhoun's feel for marketing had skyrocketed them to success with a mammoth feedlot operation here in south Texas. Shelby's family was rich, and rumor had it that she thought Justin was beneath her. It had certainly made him bitter. Funny, she mused, Shelby seemed like such a wonderful woman. And her brother, Tyler, was nice, too.
Two more ladies got their tickets, and Abby dug out a ten-dollar bill. Just as she got to the ticket counter, though, her wrist was suddenly seized and she was pulled unceremoniously to one side.
"I thought I recognized that jacket," Calhoun murmured, glaring down at her with eyes that were dark and faintly glittering. "What a good thing I decided to come home through town. Where's my brother?" he added for good measure. "Does he know where you are?"
"I told him I was going to an art exhibit," Abby replied with a touch of her irrepressible humor. Her blue-gray eyes twinkled up at him, and she felt the warm glow she always felt when Calhoun came close. Even when he was angry, it was so good to be near him. "Well, it is an art exhibit, sort of," she argued when he looked skeptical. "Except that the male statues are alive..."
"My God." He stared at the line of amused women and abruptly turned toward his white Jaguar, tugging at her wrist. "Let's go."
"I'm not going home," she said firmly, struggling. It was exciting to challenge him. "I'm going to buy my ticket and go in there—Calhoun!" she wailed as he ended the argument by simply lifting her in his hard arms and carrying her to the car.
"I can't even leave the state for one day without you doing something insane," Calhoun muttered in his deep, gravelly voice. "The last time I went off on business, I came home to find you about to leave for Lake Tahoe with that Misty Davies."
"Congratulations. You saved me from a weekend of skiing," Abby murmured dryly. Not for the world would she have admitted how exciting it was to have him carry her, to feel his strength at such close quarters. He was as strong as he looked, and the subtle scents of his body and the warmth of his breath on her face made her body tingle in new and exciting ways.
"There were two college boys all set to go along, as I remember," he reminded her.
"What am I supposed to do with my car?" she demanded. "Leave it here?"
"Why not? God knows nobody would be stupid enough to steal it," he replied easily, and kept walking, her slight weight soft and disturbing in his hard arms.
"It's a very nice little car," she protested, talking more than usual because the feel of his chest was unnerving her. His clean-shaven chin was just above her, and she was getting drunk on the feel of him.
"Which you wouldn't have if I'd gone with you instead of Justin," he returned. "Honest to God, he spoils you rotten. He should have married Shelby and had kids of his own to ruin. I hate having him practice on you. That damned little sports car isn't safe."
"It's mine, I like it, I'm making the payments and I'm keeping it," she said shortly.
He looked down at her, his dark eyes much too close to hers. "Aren't we brave, though?" he taunted softly, deliberately letting his gaze fall on her mouth.
She could barely breathe, but he wasn't going to make her back down. Not that way. She didn't dare let him see the effect he had on her. "I'm almost twenty-one," she reminded him. He looked into her eyes, and she felt the impact of his glance like a body blow. It made her feel like a lead weight. And there was a sudden tautness about his body that puzzled her. For seconds that strung out like hours, he searched her eyes. Then abruptly he moved again.
"So you keep telling me," he replied curtly. "And then you go and do something stupid like this."
"There's nothing wrong with being sophisticated," she mumbled. "God knows how I'll ever get an education. You seem to want me to spend the rest of my life a virgin."
"Hang out in this kind of atmosphere and you won't stay in that sainted condition for much longer," he returned angrily. She disturbed him when she made such statements. She had been talking like that for months, and he was no nearer a solution to the problem than he had been at the beginning. He quickened his pace toward the car, his booted feet making loud, angry thuds on the pavement.
Calhoun was still wearing a dark suit, Abby noticed. His thick dark-blond hair was covered by his cream dress Stetson. He smelled of Oriental cologne, and his dark face was clean-shaven. He was a handsome brute, Abby thought. Sexy and overpoweringly masculine, and she loved every line of him, every scowl, every rugged inch. She forced her screaming nerves not to give her away and attempted to hide her attraction to him, as usual, with humor.
"Aren't we in a temper, though?" she taunted softly, and his dark expression hardened. It was exciting to make him mad. She'd only realized that in the past few weeks, but more and more she liked to prod him, to see his explosive reactions. She loved the touch of his hands, and provoking him had become addictive. "I'm a big girl. I graduated from the trade school last year. I have a diploma. I'm a secretary. I'm working for Mr. Bundy at the feedlot sales office—"
"I remember. I paid for the trade school courses and got you the damned job," he said tersely.
"You sure did, Calhoun," she agreed, her mischievous gaze darting up at him as he opened the passenger door of the vehicle and put her on the smooth leather seat, slamming the door once she was settled. He went around the gleaming hood and got in under the steering wheel. There was muted violence in the way he started the powerful white car, shot away from the curb and drove down the town's main street.
"Abby, I can't believe you really wanted to pay money to watch a bunch of boys take their clothes off," he muttered.
"It beats having boys try to take mine off," she returned humorously. "You must think so, too, because you go nuts if I try to date anybody with any experience."
He frowned. That was true. It upset him to think of any man taking advantage of Abby. He didn't want other men touching her.
"I'd beat a man to his knees for trying to undress you, and that's a fact," he said.
"My poor future husband," she sighed. "I can see him now, calling the police on our wedding night."
"You're years too young to talk about getting married," he said.
"I'll be twenty-one in three months. My mother was twenty-one when she had me," she reminded him.
"I'm thirty-two, and I've never been married," he replied. "There's plenty of time. You don't need to rush into marriage before you've had time to see something of the world," he said firmly.
"How can I?" she asked reasonably. "You won't let me."
He glared at her. "It's the part of life that you're trying to see that bothers me. Male strip shows. My God."
"They weren't going to take all their clothes off," she assured him. "Just most of them."
"Why did you decide to go tonight?"
"I didn't have anything else to do," she sighed. "And Misty had been to see this show."
"Misty Davies," he muttered. "I've told you I don't approve of your friendship with that flighty heiress. She's years older than you and much more sophisticated."
"No wonder," she replied. "She doesn't have an overbearing guardian who's determined to save her from herself."
"She could have used one. A woman who treats her body cheaply doesn't invite a wedding ring."
"So you keep saying. At least Misty won't faint of shock on her wedding night when her husband takes his clothes off. I've never seen a man without a stitch on. Except in this magazine that Misty had—" she began, warming to her subject.
"For God's sake, you shouldn't be reading that kind of magazine!" He looked outraged.
Her eyebrows went up suddenly, and her eyes were as round as saucers. "Why not?"
He searched for words. "Well...because!"
"Men ogle women in those kind of magazines," she said reasonably. "If we can be exploited, why can't men?"
He finally gave in to ill temper. "Why can't you just shut up, Abby?"
"Okay, Calhoun, I'll do that very thing," she agreed. She studied his hard, angry profile, and almost smiled at the way she'd gotten him ruffled. He might not be in love with her, but she certainly did have a knack for getting his attention.
"All this sudden fascination with male nudity," he grumbled, glaring at her. "I don't know what's gotten into you."
"Frustration," she replied. "It comes from too many nights sitting home alone."
"I've never tried to stop you from dating," he said defensively.
"Oh, no, of course you haven't. You just sit with my prospective dates and make a big deal of cleaning your gun collection while you air your archaic views on premarital sex!"
"They're not archaic," he said curtly. "A lot of men feel the way I do about it."
"Do tell?" She lifted her eyebrow. "And I suppose that means that you're a virgin, too, Calhoun?"
His dark eyes cut sideways at her. "Do you think so, Abby?" he asked, in a tone she'd never heard him use.
She suddenly felt very young. The huskiness in his deep voice, added to the faint arrogance in his dark eyes, made her feel foolish for even having asked. Of course he wasn't a virgin.
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Book Description Silhouette, 1994. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110373483201
Book Description Silhouette. MASS MARKET PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 0373483201 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.1046113