Excerpt from UNCHAINED: MAC'S LAW

Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2004
All rights reserved Ellora's Cave, Inc.

CHAPTER ONE

Oh Hell! Homer Lone Tree was at it again.

Mac sat on the bar stool in the local bar and grill, pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, and willed his headaches to go away—the one throbbing behind his eyes, and the one walking down the street with the purpose of a man bent on proving a point.

He sighed. His day only needed this. It wasn’t enough the cook he’d hired through some fancy employment agency in Dallas had pulled a no-show. Now he had to watch Homer make a fool of himself with the only person who had gotten off the late afternoon bus—a delicate, citified woman with blonde hair. With one hand, he rubbed the ache from behind his eyes while motioning to the bartender with the other.

Bull stopped his perpetual wiping down of the orange Formica counter. “Tough day, huh?”

“It’s only going to get tougher,” he answered grimly. “That new cook that was supposed to turn up on the six p.m. bus?”

“Yeah?”

“He pulled a no-show.”

“That’s the third one this month!” Bull whisked away the beer and supplanted it with two fingers of whiskey. Mac looked at the glass, looked at Bull, and cast a longing glance at his beer.

Bull intercepted the latter. “Forget that namby-pamby stuff.” He pushed the glass an inch closer. “You’re going to need every drop of this, if not for courage, then for anesthesia.”

Mac grimaced. “The men will understand.”

Bull emitted a noise that crossed the line from laughter to hoot. “You made a promise, Mac.”

His fingers curled around the glass. “Yes, I did, and I’ve done my best to fulfill it.”

“I see,” The older man resumed wiping the counter. “And I assume you’re expecting the men to be satisfied with that, to continue to do their best work, even though you keep slopping them like hogs?”

“The beans weren’t that bad. Just a little scorched.”

“A little light in the description, aren’t we?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I heard about what you tried to feed the men last night.”

Mac winced. A cook he was not. “What do you mean, ‘heard’?”

“I mean exactly that. The men are fed up, son. For two months you’ve been shoveling them garbage like that.”

“It hasn’t been all garbage. Granny Ortiz sent over some stuff.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been frequently enough then, because the men have been wandering around town all day garnering sympathy for their plight.”

“I’m a rancher, not a cook.”

“Well, you’d better learn to tie an apron quick,” Bull countered. “Because the men are talking strike and no one in town is against it.”

“Damn.” That was not good news. Mac took a sip of his whiskey, forgetting what a kick Bull’s favorite brand possessed. He smothered the sound of his cough with a squeak of his vinyl-topped stool. God, he hated whiskey.

The bell over the door rang. Bull looked up and smiled in anticipation. “I guess it’s just not your lucky day. Here comes Homer.”

Mac sighed. “I don’t know why you keep insisting he’s my problem. I’m the Justice of the Peace. I’m supposed to be marrying people, not arresting them.”

Bull shrugged, obviously unconcerned with such trivial hairsplitting. “A Justice of the Peace is as close as we get to law around here.”

“We could call in the county sheriff,” he countered dryly.

“Ah hell. No one wants to see Homer arrested. He’ll work it out of his system soon enough.”

“He’s either got to get it out of his system, or that theme park has got to hire him,” Mac said as he turned his stool around. “He can’t go around harassing our female visitors forever. Too few of them stray our way in the first place.”

“Ain’t that the truth?” Bull agreed, scrubbing at an imaginary spot. “But for the life of me, I can’t see what they expect to find in Dallas that they can’t find here.”

“A night life?”

“Hell, we’ve got night life. We’ve got Homer.”

Mac laughed. “I’m not sure that qualifies as a life. More like a nuisance.”

“That’s no way to be talking about your own.”

“I’m best friends with his brother, Bull. We’re not blood.”

“Same difference.”

Yeah, he supposed it was. In a town as small as Round the Bend, Texas, playmates were hard for a kid to rustle up. Once a playmate was discovered, he or she tended to become part of the extended family. “Well, kin or not, I wish Homer would pick something less embarrassing to do with his Saturdays.”

And stop expecting him to step in at the crucial moment to save his ass.

“Personally, I hope he keeps it up for at least another month,” Bull countered. “Saturday afternoons used to be slow, but with all this extra money, I might just make enough to get my son that fancy bike he wants for his birthday.”

“Uh-huh.”

Pushing his battered black Stetson off his brow, Mac watched Homer zero in on his unsuspecting prey. And sighed. Ever since that theme park had refused to hire Homer for one of their shows, claiming he didn’t look “Indian” enough, Homer had been staging his own impromptu shows, bent on proving them wrong.

Mac redirected his gaze to the woman. She looked the type to scream at a mouse. Lord knows what kind of ruckus she was going to throw when Homer got near. She’d probably bring down the roof, just as the last victim of Homer’s temper had. Then everyone would deem it his responsibility to save the hysterical damsel in distress.

He’d rather be nibbled to death by ducks.

He glared through the plate glass window. If he focused his gaze dead center between the “Bull” and “Bar” of Bull’s Bar and Grill, he could see Zach, standing in front of his law office, grinning from ear to ear, no doubt anticipating the show he’d be able to see through the window. He flipped Zach an obscene response to his grin. He just shrugged and shook his head.

If not him, then who?

Mac pulled his hat back over his brow, ducked his chin, and from beneath the protective shadow of his Stetson, studied Homer’s approach from a different slant. He wondered if maybe Grandma Ortiz, the town’s matchmaker, had been the one to put the wild hair in Homer’s pants. If this was another of her efforts at getting him married, at least her taste in victims had improved. This woman was a far cry from the pretty, brassy redhead she’d tossed his way last Christmas. Not only had that woman had a mouth that would have done a sailor proud, but she hadn’t had one smidgeon of humor in her fully stacked body.

He took a more cautious sip of his whiskey. The woman Homer was closing in on, however, was a lady from head to toe. Her streaky blonde hair was in place despite what had to have been a long bus ride. Her makeup was perfect, enhancing her sun-kissed complexion right down to the deep pink lipstick that outlined a full, totally kissable mouth. He shifted uneasily in his chair. There was a certain lift to the corners of that mouth that told him it was used to laughing. There was nothing that turned him on faster than a laughing woman. He wondered who she was in town to visit. If her sense of humor was as well turned out as her appearance, it might be worth looking her up and seeing if she was interested in a no-strings western fling.

He pushed his glass aside when Homer stopped just short of the woman. Ah, hell he really was going through with this. Again.

As Homer straightened his buckskin shirt and arranged the feathers on his shield, the patrons of the grill did something Mac hadn’t thought possible. They shut up. With a deep sigh of resignation, he settled back on his stool. The show was about to begin.

Homer stepped in front of the woman’s booth. This was the first of several well-rehearsed, predictable moves. If he called out right now, Mac knew, he could put an end to this foolishness. He was halfway to committing social suicide when Bull flicked him with the bar towel.

“Don’t be spoiling things, now,” Bull whispered. “Homer’s entertaining, but harmless.” He shook the bar towel to reinforce his point. “And you know it.”

“Yeah, right. He may be harmless to the women, but not to me. I damned near lost an eardrum the last time he pulled this stunt.” He pointed his finger at Bull. “If this one’s a screamer, I’m quitting.”

“Twenty dollars says she’s not a screamer.”

Mac redirected his gaze to the woman. She had screamer written all over her. “You’re on.”

“No,” Bull corrected as Homer stepped in front of the woman’s booth. “I’d say you are.”

“Nice woman,” Homer said loud enough to carry. Mac winced. He had spoken to Homer before about his dialogue. If the kid was going to create these scenes and expect him to charge to the rescue at the appropriate time, he felt he was within his rights to demand a little attention be paid to the script. He noticed the woman had also winced, and wondered if it was Homer’s breath or choice of words she found offensive.

“Thank you,” the woman said coolly, accompanying the reply with a slight incline of her head.

“Must be her mom taught her manners carried the day,” Bull whispered.

“Yeah.” Despite himself, Mac was impressed. It wasn’t every woman who could maintain her cool when a nineteen-year-old Comanche Indian in full war paint and slightly moth-eaten regalia popped up at her elbow. Impressed enough that he handed over the twenty, not taking his eyes off the unfolding drama. Not only because he didn’t want to miss his cue but also because the more he watched the woman the more interesting she became.

Homer thumped his closed fist against his chest. “Me great warrior.”

“I could tell that from the feathers attached to your shield.”

Titters of laughter ebbed and flowed around the room.

“This ought to be good,” Bull whispered. “Nothing gets Homer going faster than being humored.”

That’s what Mac was afraid of.

And rightly so, because in the next second, Homer attempted to catch the woman’s hand in his and succeeded in knocking over her cup instead. It tumbled off the table and onto the worn linoleum where its contents formed a puddle. The woman jumped up from the seat, and tried to stop the flood with her paper napkin.

“Better get a mop and another cup of coffee ready,” Mac whispered over his shoulder.

“She’s drinking tea.”

As if he needed anymore reminding that she was city. “That figures.”

He returned his attention to the scene. He could tell from Homer’s scowl that he was embarrassed. The woman wasn’t so easy to read. The expression on her face could be either pained or amused, probably the former from the way all ten fingers were flattened on the top of her purse.

“If this is some kind of Western pickup, I’ll have to decline.” Her voice was all prim and proper. Definitely Eastern. She shrugged. “It’s not that I don’t find your approach…unique. I’m just not in the market.”

Homer wasn’t having any of that. He scowled so hard, his war paint cracked. Mac couldn’t blame him. If Homer succeeded in dragging this blonde home, his girlfriend Molly definitely would sit up and take notice.

Probably just long enough to load Homer’s ass with buckshot.

The woman grabbed more napkins as the first turned to mush and dabbed at the spill on the table. Homer, out to impress, captured her hand in his. With muscles honed through years of construction work, he pulled her away from the booth and up against his buckskin-clad chest. She promptly sneezed.

Mac rubbed his hand across his mouth to hide his amusement at Homer’s astonishment.

Homer whipped out a rubber tomahawk and raised it threateningly. “You now my woman.”

“I don’t think so.” The dismissal was coolly to the point. Homer was having none of it.

Mac sighed. It was probably time to do his hero to the rescue routine. He slid off his stool.

Homer wrapped the woman’s fat braid around his wrist. “Come, woman.”

“Look, big guy,” the woman said, with a twitch of her lips. “I already told you this caveman approach is wasted on me, so why don’t you find someone else to harass and let me get back to my tea?”

“Come now.”

“You’re pulling my hair.”

Homer switched his grip to her arm. “Come.”

“I’m warning you,” she said. “I’m going to hurt you if you don’t let me go.”

Homer, of course, did nothing of the sort. What was one delicate city woman against a big strapping country boy?

The woman sighed. Then on a “Have it your way,” she turned in his grip. Mac marveled that she could still appear delicate and fragile as she dropped the six-foot-two-inch teen with a hard jerk of her knee.

Mac very slowly backed off until his legs hit the stool he’d just vacated. He ran his eyes over the woman from the top of her head, with its elegant French braid, to the tips of her pretty pink toenails peeking out from her open-toed pumps. He watched as she gingerly stepped over Homer’s prostrate form, slung her purse over her shoulder and walked up to the counter.

“Do any of you know where I might find Mac Hollister?” she asked, coming around the counter and scooping ice into a large dishtowel. Silence greeted her question. The woman pulled herself up to all of her five-foot-nothing height. Mac figured they were supposed to be impressed.

“Well?”

Not a single man let his eyes stray toward him. Mac, in turn, watched the woman as she harrumphed “Figures” and strolled across the worn gray linoleum to shove the ice pack into Homer’s hands.

“Try to remember in the future that manhandling a woman is not the safest course to choose in these troubled times.”

Homer just stared incredulously at her, his hands automatically clutching the ice pack to his groin.

Mac glanced around and was relieved to see that he wasn’t the only one who was gaping like an idiot. Bull cleared his throat meaningfully. Mac turned to the redheaded man and got the message loud and clear. Someone had to deal with this crazy woman, and from the looks he was getting, it appeared he was elected. Sliding off the stool, he settled his hat. It might just be his pleasure.

“I don’t think Homer’s likely to forget that in the near future, ma’am.”

• * * * *

Jessica slowly straightened and looked at the man before her. She’d noticed him the moment she’d walked into the grill. What red-blooded woman wouldn’t? The man practically oozed testosterone, drawing the eye whether a woman wanted it drawn or not. His indolent posture, easy confidence and raw masculinity just screamed “bad boy”. Top that off with the way he was attired—worn, blue denim shirt that hugged his broad shoulders, jeans so broken in they clung to his lean hips and muscular thighs—and the man was a fantasy come to life. The battered black Stetson he wore slightly forward and to the side was just icing on the cake.

And he was now standing before her. All six feet, two hundred mouthwatering pounds of him. This close, she could see his hair was thick and chocolate-brown with a tendency to curl where it brushed his collar. He was around thirty. His eyes were deep blue with faint lines at the corners. The laughter lurking behind the politeness in his gaze told her those lines were created as much by a sense of humor as by long hours in the sun. A sense of humor was high on her list of qualities in a potential lover, and this man definitely had potential. She gave him a small smile and nodded toward the teen on the floor. “Does he do this often?”

He blinked twice before answering. “Only when he and his girlfriend fight, and he decides it’s time to make a few points.”

“With whom?”

“With his girlfriend, for starters,” he said. In the face of her stare, he shrugged. “He feels a periodic need to make her jealous.”

“Right.” He said that as if it made perfect sense.

“And secondly?” she asked trying to keep her smile down to casual when it wanted to kick up to laughter at the sheer absurdity of what she was hearing.

“And to the hiring officials at the local theme park.” The man’s gaze narrowed its focus to just south of her eyes. “Seems they didn’t think Homer looked Indian enough.”

He was staring at her mouth, she realized. Did she have lipstick on her teeth? She switched her smile to the closed-lip variety. The last thing she wanted to do was to scare off the first “possible” of the last twelve months before she’d had a chance to adequately explore his…possibilities.

“Have they seen him lately?” she asked with an arch of her brow.

“Nope.” He pushed his Stetson back further. His chin jerked in Homer’s direction. “Who taught you that little trick?”

“A friend.” It was her turn to shrug. “He guaranteed it as the most effective method of taking the starch out of a man.”

“Everyone knows Homer is harmless,” the man said. If she wasn’t mistaken there was a touch of reproach in his tone.

“Everyone except the poor defenseless visitors who come to this town.”

He shrugged. “We don’t have a movie theater,” he explained and added as if to make it more acceptable, “and it’s only the female visitors.”

The man squatted next to Homer. The muscles in his thighs strained the worn material of his jeans as he slid an arm behind the other man’s back.

“Damn, she’s got a sharp knee,” Homer groaned as he leaned on the other man.

“I warned you this could happen, Homer.” The first man shifted his arm around the other man’s waist and took his weight against him. “Not everyone gets your sense of humor.”

“What’s not to get?” Homer grunted as he lurched to a crouch.

Both men flashed her a glance, and for no valid reason whatsoever she felt guilty. She slipped her shoulder under Homer’s free arm. “I’m sorry.”

With Homer’s arm draped across her shoulders, the ice pack he was holding bumped her collarbone. The weight of all that muscle almost dropped her to her knees. She couldn’t see his face, but his fingers curled around her upper arm as he said, “You should be.” They tightened slightly as he added, “Just about ruined my whole act.”

Ridiculously, she found herself apologizing again.

The first man looked pointedly down at her before mentioning, “You’re a little bit short to be a prop.”

“Consider me moral support then,” Jessie said, reaching for the ice pack as the other man stood, taking Homer with him. By the time they reached their full height, the only part of Homer touching her was his hand.

“Do they grow everyone in this neck of the woods this big?” she asked, looking up, way up, at both men.

The first man shifted two steps to the left and then nothing of Homer touched her. Homer glanced at the other man, laughed, shrugged and chucked her chin with his finger. “Everything’s bigger and better in Texas.”

She pulled her face away. “Even the fools, it seems,” she observed as they deposited Homer into an empty booth.

The first man stood and cut the teen a disgusted glare. “That’s been the walking truth lately.”

As his deep blue eyes met hers, a shiver of excitement snaked down Jessie’s spine. The intensity in his gaze told her that this man didn’t do anything by half measures, and indicated a strength that whispered he could be trusted. Oh damn. As slim as the chance was that a man this masculine and this sexy was unattached, she offered up a little prayer of thanksgiving that he’d stumbled into her path. She couldn’t think of anyone more perfectly suited for her first ever fling than this man. And to think she’d wasted a year looking for him in bars and meat markets that masqueraded as gyms!

He put his right hand in his pocket. His biceps bulged enticingly against his sleeve, making her mouth water with the urge to sink her teeth into it, and his weight relaxed into his hips in a way that just screamed sex. Oh wow, she caught her breath, trying not to eat him up too obviously with her eyes. Mystery man was so much more than perfect. He was a fantasy come to life. All she had to do was convince him that she was perfect for him and her longstanding to-do list would become a thing of the past. That is, if she didn’t totally freak him out first by gawking at him rather than holding up her end of the conversation.

“What? No more defending the tradition?” she asked after she handed the ice pack back to Homer.

“You struck me with the truth.”

If she wasn’t mistaken, that was a smile ghosting the corners of his mouth.

“That happens.”

That ghost of a smile became a sensual reality. “Does nothing get you flustered?”

A smile like that would do it any day. She clamped down on her body’s response, crossing her arms over her chest to hide her tingling nipples. “Not much anymore.”

“Why not anymore?” he asked as Homer slumped back in the booth, closed his eyes, and clutched the ice pack to his groin, clearly concerned with nothing but alleviating the effects of her knee.

Jessie contemplated the last four years of her life. There was nothing like working at a school full of adolescent boys determined to see who could make her scream first to keep a woman on her toes. “Combat training.”

“Uh-huh.” His smile faded to a glimmer. The rest of his expression settled into lines of pure male interest as his gaze traveled a leisurely path from her head to her toes.

There was no doubt he liked what he saw, and the knowledge struck her with the force of lightning, electrifying every nerve ending into a state of eager anticipation. Her knees wavered as he did an even slower perusal on the way back up, pausing to check out the rapid pulse in her throat before taking that last little trip up over her face. By the time his gaze met hers, that smile had deepened at the corners and her breath was coming in halting stutters.

“Are you going to be in town long?” he asked.

She couldn’t even begrudge him his knowing smile as she was reacting so very visibly to his interest, but she’d kill him if he was married or had a girlfriend. She’d made out with men for a good twenty minutes and never been as remotely turned on as this man made her feel with just a look. She really, really wanted to know how good he could make her feel if he set his mind to it.

“I suspect I’ll be in the area for a while.”

“Maybe I could show you the highlights sometime?”

Oh please let that invite mean he was free and available for plucking.

She kept her thoughts to herself and feigned shock. “You mean this wasn’t it?”

His amusement was slow and leisurely, starting in his eyes, moving to his lips before spreading outward, infusing his face with a heavy sensuality that had her breath catching in her throat. “Not quite.”

“Is there something around here that could top it?”

His gaze flicked to the front of her blouse and his smile broadened. “Oh yeah.”

Jessie gripped her arms with her fingers to keep from dissolving into the floor. She couldn’t help it. She had to know. “Are you married or otherwise attached?”

His right eyebrow cocked at her. No doubt he was surprised by her aggressiveness. Truth be told, she was a little surprised herself, but she’d been waiting so long for someone like him.

“No.”

She closed her eyes on a silent “Thank God”.

When she opened them he was still staring at her. He might have wanted to say more, but the bartender chose that moment to call out, “Would you like another cup of tea?”

Her walking fantasy closed his sexy mouth. Rats!

“Yes,” she answered, biting back a sigh. Tea and a little distance might just keep her from acting the total fool. “Thank you.”

She gave Homer a last pat on the shoulder, fetched her tea and headed back toward her booth. She held her breath as she waited to see if her man would follow.

He did. She released her breath on a long steadying exhale as he poured himself a cup of coffee and strolled toward her. “I get the impression you weren’t too scared by Homer.”

“Was I supposed to be?” she asked, snagging some sugar from another booth since her bowl was empty. As she stood, she caught those blue eyes appraising her ass. From the curve of his lips, she knew he liked what he saw. She took a little longer straightening than she needed to, teasing him, feeling a little drunk on her daring.

He took a sip of his coffee. “I’d think that when a strange man in full Comanche paint waves a tomahawk over your head, it would be prudent to at least be alarmed.”

She sighed. “I have a problem with that.”

His eyebrows rose as he waited for the woman to seat herself. “You have a problem with being alarmed?”

She bit her lip and smiled. “I have a problem with being prudent.”

Especially lately. She’d discovered the bubbling sense of freedom that had taken her in the wake of her mother’s death was harder to control than the resentment she’d felt at Alzheimer’s slow destruction of the person her mother had been. It kept sneaking past her guard when she least expected, encouraging her to make up for lost time. Lost opportunities. She looked at the big man in front of her, from the tip of his worn boots to the top of his equally battered hat. And, man, this was one hell of an opportunity.

“Uh-huh. Care to explain?”

She slid into the opposite seat. “I have an inappropriate funny bone.”

He grabbed a packet of cream off the table and added it to his coffee. “Homer?”

“I found it impossible to quake in fear of a man who reeks of mothballs.”

That he’d been expecting some other response was evidenced by the way his laughter caused him to choke on his coffee. While he wiped his mouth with a napkin, she asked, “I’m kind of in a pickle here. Seeing as how you were a bit delayed in your chivalrous impulses, and therefore owe me, do you think you could help me find Mac Hollister? I don’t know what’s up with the guy, but every time I mention his name, people either break into laughter or get all quiet and wary.”

The man swore under his breath as every eye in the place pointedly skirted his direction.

It took Jessie two heartbeats before realization dawned. “You’re Mac Hollister?”

He grimaced. “Yeah.”

“The Mac Hollister who owns the Circle H?”

“The only one around these parts.”

“Well, hell!” Disappointment slammed into her hopes. “You’re not sixty, squinty-eyed and choking on a wad of chewing tobacco.”

He carefully lowered his cup to the table, eyeing her as if she’d just slipped a screw.

“You have a problem with the way I look?” he asked.

She shook her head sadly, and sighed. It just figured her first walking invitation to her first affair would come with a hitch.

“I do, and so will you.”

She rose and stepped out of the booth. Mac stood also, in a display of manners she liked. With a sad thought to what might have been, she stuck out her hand. “How do you do, Mr. Hollister. I’m J. C. Sterns, your new cook.”


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