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The Cattleman is one of my favorite stories. Officially it’s book two of the West Texas Watchmen, but we met Nick in Protecting Their Child (the story that inspired the series). Without spoiling PTC for those who haven’t read it, Nick was not a super great guy. His story in The Cattleman is full of redemption, fun, more fun and a lot of city girl vs. country boy. Hey, there’s a pair of purple boots with rhinestones…you can’t get more fun than that.
This story also deals with the aftermath of trauma. We naturally associate PTSD with our Wounded Warriors. It’s harder to realize that someone who is a survivor might also be caught suffering long after they heal. Harder still to get them to realize they need help.
Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from Nick’s POV, seeing Beth’s boots for the first time:
Two heads in the Wrangler. When they got closer he could tell Beth was driving, with one of the ranch hands holding on for dear life. She skidded to a stop, causing his horse to jerk sideways, trying to bolt.
The ranch hand jumped out, crossed himself and ran to Nick. Looked like his medicine would be coming a bit earlier than he’d anticipated. Off his horse, he grabbed his gear, slung his saddle bags over his shoulder and kept his rifle in his hand. A year ago that much riding would have made him too sore to move.
“Straight back to the barn with this guy, then a rub and extra oats. Thanks, Paul.”
Before the shooting, Nick always sent the hands out to look for strays and broken fences. He’d stayed in the comfort of his office or had worked the horses in the corral.
“Si, senor. I’ll take good care of him. You be careful with the she-devil. She’s one crazy driver.”
So, they’d given her a nickname. He had one or two himself.
“Any day now, Mr. Burke,” she said, tapping the wheel.
He tossed his things into the open backseat and stood by the driver’s side door.
“Aren’t you getting in?” she asked.
“Not if you’re driving. My Wrangler. My keys. My turn.”
“Oh, good grief.” She stood, popped over to the passenger side and buckled up while he got in and did the same. “We were about to come looking for you.”
“I see you bought yourself some boots.”
“They’re purple.” And had shiny rhinestones. He stifled a laugh.
“I was assured they’re very popular.”
He reached for the key and paused. He’d avoided this area for a while now. One of the last times he’d driven down this road had been about a year ago with Kate next to him. A different time, different thoughts, different plans for his future that hadn't been set in reality. Beth was the complete opposite, no comparison.
“You coming after me would have been fun to watch. Again. I’ve been wishing I had a video from the last time.”
“I needed time to get used to things.” He started the engine and didn’t gun it until they were well away from his horse. If he kept Beth clinging to the roll bars, she might keep quiet long enough for him to reach the hill. Or perhaps having the stuffing knocked out of her on the well-rutted, washed-out road would.
“Juliet and Alan were worried.”
He knew they were and wouldn’t argue. Admitting he was wrong would be hard enough to accomplish. “I’ll take it up with them. You’ve got my curiosity up. How did you know I was headed home and why the rush to get me there?” He shouted enough to be heard over the engine and the wind rushing by their ears.
“So you didn’t think we’d be coming to look for you?” she asked, looking ahead with only one hand holding to the door frame.
He skidded the Wrangler to a stop as he crested the last hill to the house. “What do you need to say to me that can’t be said where I might raise my voice and blow your cover?”
Eyes as big as a baby doe’s, she stared at him several seconds. “How did you figure that out?”
“I took more classes in college than just animal husbandry. But it really didn’t take much to get four from that two-plus-two equation.” He pushed his hands through his hair instead of reaching out for her as he wanted. They might as well get the apologies out of the way. “So what did you want to see me about?”
“We didn’t really get a chance to talk much before you took off. Your mom mentioned she saw you. So I, um…I just thought it would look better if I seemed excited to greet you.”
“Right. It has nothing to do with how anxious you are to hear what I found out there? And it doesn’t have anything to do with whether I decided to walk away from all this or stay and help you with your cover?”
“Go ahead, drive. I’m not in any hurry to hear anything.” She leaned back, trying to look casual. It didn’t look good on her. He liked that she stood and sat straight. Taller than everyone in the room except for him. Casual didn’t fit. “I really didn’t care when you got back. You were gone three days. I can’t help it if people began to wonder why you left.”
“On the very day you arrived, too. Must have been hard to explain. Probably even harder to your friend McCrea. My parents get it. I leave all the time.”
“Makes no difference to me. I get paid the same, whether you help or not.”
She clenched her jaw just as she did when holding her opinion to herself with the task force. Her teeth might split in two if she bit down any harder.
“And what if I said I did see something in one of the box canyons. Is there still no rush?” He watched the raven-black braid fly from its casual spot across her breast to hit the Wrangler seat as she turned to face him. It was hard to hold back his laughter. He raised his eyebrows and clenched his jaw so he’d appear serious. “Want me to take the long way home?”
“Are you kidding? Why are we waiting here?” The smoldering look she returned spoke every ounce of the frustration she’d obviously experienced. “We need to get a team together and get there as fast as possible. You should have called.”
He scratched the three days of beard. “I’ll be glad to hit the shower and get some of this stink off me.”
“Then why don’t we go to the house?”
He flipped his seatbelt off his shoulder and stood in the worn seat, gesturing for her to follow. She did. He leaned forward on the windshield frame like he had many times in the past year, just looking. And wondering where the men were who had ordered his death.
“Have you taken a look at a map, Beth? Do you have any idea how long it takes to get anywhere in this country? Especially on horseback?”
“Believe me, I study area maps all the time. In between my daily chores, that is. We should get moving. There’s a lot to arrange.”
Agent Conrad had ranch chores? He swallowed his surprise. Who did he have to thank for that bit of pleasure? “I should have thought of assigning you duties before I left.” He waved a hand in an arch toward his land. “Tell me what you see, Beth.”
“A lot of nothing in that direction. The ranch is behind us. What’s your point?”
“That’s exactly my point.” He was disappointed, but she said what he’d expected to hear. How most people reacted. “You see nothing.”
“Can you stop speaking in riddles, Nick? So there’s a lot of nothing between us and wherever this box canyon is. How far can we take the cars?”
She was such an attractive, competent woman. It would have been nice to imagine her here because she wanted to be. Because she saw the beauty of the land just like he did. Of course, appreciating the ranch had taken quite a while for him. He couldn’t expect that reaction from anyone overnight. Or even in three weeks.
Making love to Beth had been a welcome reward for getting pulled into that cold water cistern after she’d been dumped there by her horse. He’d been looking forward to getting her onto a soft mattress once or twice before she headed back to Chicago. But that was before she’d declared herself his protector and had been assigned permanently to this idiotic task force.
She tapped the back roll bar. He remembered her long manicured nails. The vivid memory of them being dragged across his back and then barely touching the puckered bullet scar had combined both of his dreams into one.
The best and worst thing that had happened this past year.
He pointed to the highest spot in front of them. “Up there is where most of the activity’s been.”
The sun was setting. Still high enough to just catch the hilltops and make Nick shade his eyes.
“It was clear this morning. No signs they’d been there in a while. Then I had a fight with one who destroyed my cell and stole my horse. I tracked the horse, waited until they pulled out and came home. In the time it took me to ride down, I’ve seen dust clouds. Heard sounds of a second chopper.”
“Let’s go. Now.” She popped into her seat. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her head tilted up to him. “I will find these guys and put an end to the threat they pose.”
“No, you won’t. That’s the point. In all this vastness, you can’t do this alone. Not without a lot of help and manpower. You have neither. Just me and a lot of ground to cover. You think of me as just a rancher, someone to teach you the necessary skills to complete your mission so you can move on. But I live here. This is my land, my home.”
“Look, I realize they twisted your arm to help me and that you might be—”
“No one can force me to do this, Beth,” he interrupted before she could make him angry. Hell, she’d already made him angry. “Here’s a secret, I don’t live here because I have no choice. I’m not afraid. You need to stop thinking that I am or we’ll never leave the paddock.”
“I don’t think of you that way, Nick.” Shoulders back, shades on the top of her head, she implored him with her eyes alone. “I never could. If I didn’t respect your skills, I wouldn’t have asked for your help.”
“You’re asking this time instead of the DEA?”
She laughed, tossing her braid over her shoulder, making him wish those gorgeous black locks were flying free in the wind. “The DEA doesn’t need to learn to ride one of those monsters you call a horse.”
The sun disappeared. Staying up here would give credence to their engagement story. If he was going through with this charade. “I had another reason for stopping.”
“It can’t wait?”
“Man alive, you’re just flat impatient.”
“I’m efficient.” The little remaining light was behind her and he couldn’t see her expression. But the agent had returned, standing straight and resting her hand on her hip.
“I stopped to give you a chance to say something without my mom and dad in the room. Don’t you have something to ask me?”
She jumped from the Wrangler and walked around to the hood, lightly hitting it with the palm of her hand.
“I don’t think I should. You’ve obviously made up your mind that this is a hopeless situation and you’re unwilling to help. I’ll just go back to the B&B tonight.”
“There you go jumping to conclusions again.” He’d decided to go through with this earlier and he didn’t know why he wanted to tease her so much with what ifs now. But it felt right. “You mentioned something about a fake engagement so everyone thinks you’re staying here is legit.”
“Yes. Does that mean you’re agreeing to teach me how to operate in this territory?”
“I wouldn’t go that far. But I’ll teach you what you need to get by.”
“Yes.” She did a classic double fist pump gesture for emphasis.
“That is if you ask me. And if I were you…” He ducked under the roll bar to the ground. “I’d ask me real nice-like. Bended knee, the whole shebang.”
“Oh my gosh. You can’t be serious. It’s a fake engagement.”
He gestured to the rocky ground again. “Not to everyone out there.”
“You’re for real? You want me to kneel? No one can see us. Oh, all right. Whatever.” She shoved his chest, causing him to retreat a step and giving her room to bend on one knee. “Okay. So. Um, Nick Burke, will you?”
“Wait. I think you’re supposed to hold my hand or something.”
She rolled her eyes and grabbed his hand, sighing as if touching him was going to absolutely kill her. “Will you marry me?”
“Marry you? I don’t know even know you.” For some unexplained reason he couldn’t help teasing her.
“Okay, that’s it. I’m out of here.”
He squeezed her hand, keeping her where she was while he knelt in front of her. Their thighs touched. It was clear that two layers of jeans weren’t enough to stop the sparks he remembered.
“Go ahead. I’m ready and will behave.”
“Again?” Beth cracked her neck exactly like she did before taking aim. “Fine. Will you marry me?” she asked in one long monotone breath.
“Sure. But I want to be up-front with you. I believe in long engagements.” He helped her to her feet.
“Thank heaven.” She started to slip away.
Someone probably watched them through the telescope they had on the patio. That’s how his mom would have known he was close. He knew it, but Beth didn’t. The entire gesture thing was to make her cover story believable. He should tell her. But not telling her for a minute was much more fun.
As many times as they’d kissed, even the first night they’d kissed, they’d never been standing. Now he held her close to his chest and slid his arms around her back.
“What the heck do you think you’re do—”
He kissed her. And kissed her again before her hands went from trying to push him away to sliding around his neck. Her lips were as soft as he remembered. She tasted like fruit. Strawberry or maybe cherry.
It was hard to remember that someone, most likely both his parents, were taking turns watching. His fingers itched to drop a few inches and curve around her shapely bottom. Instead he wrapped them around her waist and explored her cool mouth.
When they came up for air, Beth’s dimple was prominent in her cheek.
“Worth going down on one knee?”
“Don’t get so full of yourself.” She pointed a finger in his chest. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out this was for your mother’s benefit. I finally remembered the telescope.”
There wasn’t a sharp jab from the tip of her finger. He grabbed her hand and took a closer look. “You cut your nails?”
“I realized it would be better if they were short. Easier to do ranch work. I took care of it in Alpine with Kate. I don’t mind.”
He did. He’d miss them. “Kate? When did you see her?”
“We went shopping. I needed appropriate clothes if I was going to take my turn mucking stalls like everybody else.”
“I have hands for that. Who the hell said we took turns?”
“Great. Just great. I am going to kill your father,” she said through gritted teeth as she walked back to her seat.
“Hey, Beth?” A Wrangler width’s between them and he continued to feel the heat she’d created being against his body. He wanted to stay and wait for the stars to come out instead of heading toward the house. He was very tempted to ask but that wasn’t the objective. “There’s another reason for you to stay on the ranch besides my mom’s ultimatum.”
He could see her smile, her brilliantly white teeth showing in spite of the darkening sky. Time to fill her in on his adventure at the canyon.
“I’m going to find who the cartel has spying at the Rocking B. I’m ending this once and for all.”
Here’s what readers said about The Cattleman:
“Wow! Talk about action packed! I just couldn't put this book down because there was so much action. I didn't want to miss anything. Beth and Nick took on a lot of trouble and wowed me with their abilities and quick thinking. The storyline of the drug smugglers and gun runners continues in this story and I am anxious to see what happens in the next book. I highly recommend this book.” Margie on Amazon, 5 stars
“This book had me from the very first page and keep me on the edge of my seat to the last page. I loved Nick and Beth very much, they both had something to prove and they did it. This story had it all suspense, drama, romance, everything you love in a great book. I can't wait to read the next book in this West Texas Watchman series. Thank you Angi Morgan for another outstanding read!!!” Therese on Amazon,5 stars
“Punishment for her supposed failure, became her triumph. Plus, it got her a sexy cowboy. He had demons of his own that were neutralized.” Irene on Amazon, 5 stars
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Check out the posts about Nick & Beth on Just Romantic Suspense:
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USA Today Bestselling author ANGI MORGAN writes Intrigues where honor and danger collide with love. Her work is a multiple contest finalist and Publishers Weekly best-seller. She drags her dogs –and husband– around Texas for research road trips so she can write off her camera. They now have a map with highlighted roads they’ve traveled. Every detour somehow makes it into a book.
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Do you wear boots? If so…what kind?