Saturday Excerpt: Cowboy Under Fire by Carla Cassidy
Opposites attract in a new edge-of-your-seat romantic thriller from New York Times bestselling author Carla Cassidy. Keep reading for an excerpt from Cowboy Under Fire, on sale now from Harlequin Romantic Suspense!
Forensic pathologist Patience Forbes is a whiz with the dead—it’s flesh-and-blood men who wreck her equilibrium. And cowboy Forest Stevens isn’t fooled by the guarded beauty’s icy facade. So when she’s attacked, he appoints himself her personal bodyguard. Her very personal bodyguard…
Patience is determined to investigate mysterious bones on the Holiday Ranch—not fall into bed with her sexy protector. But Forest is too masculine, too willing to lay down his life for hers…and too set on living a different life from the one she’s built. With danger closing in, can Forest tame the shrew before it’s too late?
She cast a tiny shadow, but was as snappy as a ticked-off Chihuahua. Forest Stevens cast a huge shadow but rarely got riled up about anything. Still, since the moment the petite Dr. Patience Forbes had arrived on the Holiday Ranch, she’d fired him up in a way he hadn’t felt before.
Not that he’d done anything about it…at least not yet. Despite the fact that she’d been on the property for the past three weeks, he had yet to do much of anything except tip his black hat as she stalked back and forth from her room next to his to the blue tent where she worked.
He was aware of the importance of her work. As a forensic anthropologist she’d been brought to the ranch by the discovery of a mass grave beneath an old shed that had been damaged in the spring by a tornado. The pit of bones had been unearthed when the ranch hands were tearing down the shed after the storm.
He now stood just outside the tent where she and her assistant, a middle-aged man named Dr. Devon Lewi-son, had been dealing with the bones of the dead in an attempt to put skeletons back together again and gather information so that identities could potentially be established or a clue to the killer might be discovered.
For the entire length of time that she’d been on the ranch, she hadn’t interacted with anyone except Devon and Chief of Police Dillon Bowie. She worked from dawn until dusk and didn’t take her meals in the cowboy dining room.
Forest hoped to change some of that. For a man who was six-four and strong as an ox, a ridiculous nervousness raced through him as he drew a deep breath and stepped in front of the doorway of the tent.
She immediately whipped around, her red, shoulder-length curls dancing with her movement as her green eyes narrowed in obvious irritation. “You’re blocking my light, cowboy.”
Moving left or right wouldn’t change the fact that he completely filled up the tent entrance. “My name isn’t cowboy, it’s Forest… Forest Stevens.” He quickly swept his hat off his head, as if that polite gesture would somehow turn her deep frown into a pleasant smile. It didn’t.
“Okay, Forest Stevens, what’s the problem?”
She stood before a stainless-steel table where dried brown bones were laid out in the quasi-pattern of a human being. Forest averted his gaze from the remnants of death to her.
“No problem,” he replied easily. “You’re staying in the room next to mine. I just figured it was about time we spoke.”
“Good. Now we’ve spoken. Goodbye.” She dismissed him by turning her slender back on him.
Forest stepped out the tent entrance and heaved a sigh of frustration. He shouldn’t be dismayed by her curtness. At least he knew not to take it personally. She hadn’t been friendly with anyone on the ranch. Even Dillon called her Dr. Dreadful or the dragon lady behind her back.
Dusty Crawford, the youngest cowboy working on the ranch, stood just a few feet away, and his dimples flashed as he grinned at Forest. “Ah, cut off right at the knees,” he said. “At least that brings you down to my height.”
“Very funny,” Forest replied and set his hat back on his head. “Besides, I wasn’t cut off anywhere. All I wanted to do was introduce myself to her and I accomplished that.”
The two men headed for the stables. “Dillon says the woman breathes fire whenever she opens her mouth.”
And a fine mouth it was, Forest thought. Perfectly formed with just enough plump to look utterly kissable. He grimaced and shoved the thought aside.
“He also says she must eat nails for breakfast and spits them out with a sharp sting with her temper. Even Cassie insists the woman has ice in her veins,” Dusty continued.
Cassie. There was still a dull ache in Forest’s heart when he thought of his new young boss. Three months ago Cass Holiday had been killed in a tornado that had ripped through the property. She’d left behind twelve cowboys who had loved her like a mother and a legacy of high standards and loyalty.
Cass had left the successful ranch to her niece, Cassie Peterson, a New York artist and shop owner. Over the last two months Cassie had surprised them all. With the help of foreman Adam Benson, she had jumped right in to learn the ropes of running such a big operation.
She wasn’t the woman her aunt had been, but she appeared to be trying her best to learn all there was to know about ranch life. Still, the cowboys working the Holiday spread considered themselves Cass’s cowboys, not Cassie’s men.
“Are you going into town tonight?” Dusty asked, pulling Forest from his thoughts. “It’s Saturday night, so I figure I’ll grab dinner at the café and then maybe amble over to the Watering Hole for a few beers.”
“I think I’ll just stick around here,” Forest replied. “You know you could always eat in the cowboy dining room right here and then head out to the Watering Hole,” he said in mock innocence.
“I’m just kinda in the mood for Daisy’s Saturday night meat loaf special, and I know Cookie is planning on burgers tonight.”
“Tell the truth, you couldn’t care less about meat loaf—you just want to go to the café to try again to sweeten up Trisha,” Forest said, referring to one of the waitresses who worked on Saturday nights.
Dusty heaved a disheartened sigh. “I’ve been trying to sweeten up that woman for months, and she’s having nothing to do with it.”
“Then why don’t you just give it up? There are plenty of other single women in Bitterroot just waiting for a young buck like you to take an interest in them.”
They reached the stables and both headed to the saw-horses where saddles were slung across the tops. “She gives me mixed messages,” Dusty said. “She isn’t married and yet she doesn’t date anyone. I sometimes see her watching me when she thinks I’m not looking. I’m not a bad-looking guy, right?”
“You’ve got a certain charm about you with all that blond hair and those deep dimples, but you’re definitely not my type,” Forest replied with a wry grin.
Dusty grabbed his saddle by the horn and pulled it off the sawhorse. “One of these days she’s either going to tell me to get lost or agree to go out with me. Until one of those things happens, I’ll be eating meat loaf at the café on Saturday nights.”
Forest watched as Dusty headed for the stall where his horse was housed. He feared that Dusty was caught up more in the challenge of the chase than guided by any real feelings for the pretty waitress.
Time would tell how things worked out for Dusty and Trisha. Not my problem, Forest thought and grabbed his own saddle and headed for his horse, Thunder. Thunder was a large brown horse, but it took a big horse to carry a big cowboy.
Dusty rode up to Forest. “What about the barn dance next Friday night? Are you planning on going?”
“Haven’t made up my mind yet,” Forest replied.
“Abe always throws a heck of a party.”
“I know,” Forest agreed. Over the years Forest had been to many of Abe Breckinridge’s barn parties. It was always a good time for all who attended.
“You know most of us will go. We need somebody who can carry Sawyer to the back of a truck at the end of the night.”
Forest grinned as he thought of fellow ranch hand Sawyer Quincy. The man rarely drank, but when he did, it didn’t take much alcohol to put him totally under the table.
“I’m sure if I don’t go then somebody else will manage to get Sawyer home safe and sound.”
Dusty nodded and left the stables. It took Forest only minutes to saddle up and ride out into the bright morning and head toward the distant pasture. Today he had to check out the cattle stock and make sure they all appeared healthy and no prey had attacked them overnight.
There were eleven cowboys currently working the ranch. They had lost one a month ago when Lucas Taylor had moved on to a small ranch of his own with his girlfriend Nicolette and her son, Sammy. The two were getting married in a couple of weeks.
Then, another ranch cowboy, Nick Coleman, had also found love and moved off the ranch to a nice two-story house in the small nearby town of Bitterroot, but Nick continued to work here from dawn until dusk and then went home to his wife, Adrienne, each evening.
Lucky Lucas and lucky Nick, they had both found love and were building a future with the special women who had captured their hearts.
It didn’t take long for Forest to reach the large herd of Angus cattle. He waved to Flint McCay who rode along the fence line, checking for breaks.
The mid-July sun was hot on his back as he cut through the cattle, looking for any that might appear sick or wounded. This was the core wealth of the ranch—the livestock and the contacts Cass had made in the beef industry. They had built Cass a small empire and a respected name in the state and beyond.
Thoughts of the woman who had taken him on as a homeless teenager vanished as thoughts of another woman filled his head. He had no idea why he was so intrigued with Dr. Patience Forbes.
She’d been a prickly pear since the moment she’d arrived, not even pretending to be friendly with anyone on the ranch. When she finished her work for the day, she disappeared into her small bunk room, not to be seen again until morning when she was back at work. The only person she obviously had a relationship with was her assistant.
In all the years of working and living on the Holiday Ranch and interacting with the people of Bitter-root, Oklahoma, Forest had never had any real feelings for a woman.
He’d dated a bit over the years, had slept with a couple of willing partners, but his heart had never been involved with anyone. Of course, he wasn’t looking for a heart match with Patience. He was just curious about her, that was all.
Curiosity killed the cat, a little voice whispered in the back of his head. He smiled inwardly. He didn’t believe Patience would be his death, but he definitely wasn’t ready to admit defeat already where she was concerned.
The tall, big-shouldered cowboy with the rich dark hair and piercing blue eyes had definitely broken Patience’s concentration. And concentration was vital for the work she was doing.
“Let’s take a break,” she said to Devon. “We’ll get back to work in about half an hour.”
“Then I’m heading into the trailer where it’s cool,” Devon replied.
Patience raised a hand to wave him out of the tent and then sat on a nearby chair. At the foot of the chair was a small cooler. She opened it and shoved aside a bag of cheese puffs to retrieve a cold soda.
She rubbed the cool can across her forehead where the beginning of a headache attempted to blossom. This was the most challenging job she’d been handed since becoming a part of the Oklahoma City Police Department and in addition to teaching classes at the university.
She’d worked plenty of cases where bones had been found and the police needed her expertise in aging them and looking for anything that might provide identification.
But this particular burial site had six bodies that had dissolved to nothing but bones. As the bodies had deteriorated, the bones had all collapsed together, forcing her to work six different puzzles. It had been easy to know that there were six bodies by the six skulls.
At least the young woman’s body that had been found here along with the others had been identified and her recent murder solved, leaving Patience only the graveyard of old bones to deal with.
She popped open the top of her soda and took a long drink. The tent interior was hot and would only get hotter as the July days got longer and the dog days of August moved in. But she couldn’t allow a fan to blow or any equipment to change the atmosphere, to subtly move the dirt or taint the crime scene and the six skeletons in the same grave that could only be the result of murder.
Once again she thought of the cowboy who had broken her concentration. Forest. Forest Stevens. She couldn’t help but have noticed him around the ranch since she’d arrived.
He rode taller in the saddle than the other men and his incredible shoulders tapered into a slim waist, and she suspected his legs were firmly muscled beneath his worn well-fitting jeans.
She frowned. Why had he stopped to talk to her at all? She’d made it clear by action and more than a hint of snarky attitude that she had no interest in making new friends or acquaintances while she was here.
She had a job to do, and when this job was over she’d move on to the next one. Besides, she didn’t do friends, she didn’t do lovers. She did bones.
Bones spoke to her in words that didn’t hurt. They gave her facts, not lies. She liked her bones far more than she liked people.
Still, she had to give Forest Stevens props for facing down the dragon lady. She shook her head ruefully and then took another sip of the refreshing soda. She knew how everyone on the ranch talked about her behind her back. She didn’t care. She wasn’t here for warm and fuzzy feelings, she was here to help the local chief of police solve a crime.
* * *
Order your copy of Cowboy Under Fire to keep reading: