Love With An Imperfect Cowboy
Lone Star Dynasty (The Starks) Book 1
She’s a runaway bride looking for love in all the wrong places
Desperate to escape her cheating bridegroom, Hannah Lewis heads to the one place nobody will ever think to look for her—Texas, where she’d planned to go on her honeymoon.
An Impossible Attraction
Grieving widower, rancher Liam Stark knows better than to get involved with the big-eyed dazzler who walks into his bar lost and alone, looking naïve and casting haunted glances his way, practically begging him for lessons in love. Then she puts herself in harm’s way, and he has to save her. He doesn’t do love, but maybe he can give her what she wants… if for one night only.
Early December, New York City
I wonder if I’m the first Park Avenue bride to ever go on her honeymoon alone and with a goal to have revenge sex?
When Hannah Lewis planned her perfect day, she’d never imagined she’d be a bride on the run from her own magnificent, Upper East Side wedding.
After all she was a Lewis, who’d been born and bred in a penthouse that crowned one of the truly great buildings on Park Avenue, a building inhabited by titans of industry and their glittering, socialite wives. A building whose smug board had made international celebrities weep when they were denied ownership. But now, instead of sipping champagne in her father’s club while her mother basked with pride at having launched her favorite daughter,
Hannah’s eyes were glued to the minivan’s bumper less than a foot in front of the Jag.
Don’t think about Mother and how disappointed she is.
Oblivious to the blasts of horns on all sides of her, Hannah pushed her lace veil out of her eyes, hunched over the wheel and gunned James’s Jaguar
for all it was worth. Tires screeching, she changed lanes, cutting off the trucker to her right who shot her the finger as she raced north along E. River Drive.
Having grown up with a private limo and chauffeur, and later with the use of an elite car service paid for by Daddy, not to mention privately chartered helicopter rides to the family summer home in the Hamptons, Hannah didn’t drive much. Unlike her twin who loved cars, she lacked the patience, even when her life was running smoothly.
Today she felt like a joke in her organza wedding gown. And as for patience—she was psycho bride on the warpath.
If only she could have lost the dress before she’d jumped behind the wheel of James’s sports car, but she’d been in a panic bordering on the murderous. Her only thought had been to escape James, their extravagant reception, her twin sister, and all the guests who might have witnessed her
humiliation. And Mother. No way could she deal with her mother who would consider this her tragedy.
This was supposed to be her perfect day! Hers! Not Nell’s! Not Mothers either!
Driven by her mother to excel as a bride as she’d always excelled in everything, from French to physics to classical piano and her career in medicine, Hannah had spent days, hours, weeks…years—well, fifteen months exactly, planning her wedding down to the last detail.
Okay, so maybe she’d become obsessed about the wedding being perfect; so maybe juggling the long hours she put in as an anesthesiologist and organizing the wedding had made her edgy; okay, more than edgy. So maybe
she’d gotten over-stressed and hadn’t paid enough attention to James. Men were high-maintenance, right?
Maybe she’d had a few doubts herself about marrying James these past few weeks. When she’d gone to her mother, her mother had reminded her that she loved James.
When James asked her if anything was wrong, she’d shaken her head and said it was just nerves. He’d seemed to understand that weddings made brides and their mothers crazy, especially Upper East Side, detail-oriented brides and their competitive, helicopter mothers. She’d reminded him that after their wedding he and she were going to have a month all to themselves to honeymoon. A whole month at the dude ranch he’d chosen in the middle of nowhere, where she would have nothing else to do but devote herself to him and indulge his every whim.
He knew doctors were busy; they’d been together for a while, hadn’t they? He was an extremely ambitious attorney, who worked all the time himself. Did she ever complain about that when he tried a case and she was on her own for days…and nights? No, she used the time to get more done herself.
He’d admired her family’s position and status. He knew she’d wanted everything to be perfect for him. It had all been to please him.
Well…and Mother and Daddy.
And then her very own twin sister, Daddy’s favorite had had to ruin everything. Had Nell simply been jealous?
Tears leaked from Hannah’s narrowed eyes as she remembered what she’d caught Nell doing to James at the reception. Hannah hadn’t cried since her first year in medical school, but surely utter betrayal by her sister and brand- new husband deserved a tear or two.
On her eightieth birthday, she’d still remember his goofy smile as he’d stared down at Nell and the glitter of triumph in Nell’s lovely, dark eyes.
Her twin! Her own twin!
Hannah’s flesh felt clammy. The Queen Anne Venice lace beneath her underarms was soggy. Not that she cared that she might be doing permanent damage to the designer lace gown with its chapel length train as she stomped on the accelerator again and swerved left onto the bridge. She would shred it or maybe burn it as soon as she got to the airport.
The sun was out, and little white diamonds danced on the water’s surface. Normally she would have admired the pretty view of Roosevelt Island. Not today. All she wanted was to leave New York as fast as possible. She had a month off and two tickets to Texas.
Texas? Why of all the lovely places to honeymoon had James chosen Texas? She knew the answer to that: his favorite aunt had lived on a ranch in South Texas, and he had fond memories of visiting her there as a boy. In addition the weather was warm there this time of year.
Luck was with her. The traffic thinned. Twenty minutes later she was
* * *
inside the parking garage at the airport hunting the perfect space for James’s
precious XK. It took her a while to find a roomy spot where it wouldn’t get dinged.
She pulled in carefully, watching the visual indicator on his touch screen to make sure she wasn’t too close to the battered truck on her right while listening to all the audible warnings that cautioned she was dangerously near other objects. It was only after she turned off the engine and opened the door and saw how perfectly she’d parked his fantasy car, that she banged her fists in frustration against the steering wheel.
Was she out of her mind? Why was she still trying to please James by taking such good care of his car?
Remembering his grin and Nell’s triumphant gaze, she saw red. She couldn’t breathe as a scream bubbled to her lips. In a blaze of temper she slammed the door shut, restarted his car, backed it up, hitting the brakes so fast they squealed. Tightening her seatbelt and positioning her seat as far from the steering wheel as she could, she took aim at the big black 5 stenciled on the wall in front of her. Then she rammed her foot down onto the gas pedal.
Seconds later glass and metal and his airbag exploded.
Although her nose and cheeks stung from the impact, she almost welcomed the pain. Not bothering to shut off the engine or silence the Jag’s audible alarms, she got out and dusted her hands. When she grabbed her purse and took a step, her train snagged on a tiny lever. Yanking at the white lace, she ripped the fabric she’d paid thousands for.
Behind her a gentle voice said, “Are you okay, Miss?”
Braced for a judgmental attack, she whirled to face a worried young mother and a dark-eyed little girl with saucy, brown curls, who were carrying bags stuffed with Christmas presents.
“Are you okay?” the darling little girl repeated. “Your nose! It’s all red!” She was so not okay. “I’ll live.”
Brushing a tendril of gold out of her eyes, which were probably smudged with runny black makeup, she struggled to take a breath.
“Are you a princess?” The child’s big, dark eyes, which studied Hannah’s designer gown and her tiara, were filled with awe. “Did you just marry the prince?”
Since she’d been brought up in the rarefied atmosphere of a stylish, moneyed world, and James had been handsome and wealthy, most New Yorkers would probably think so. Real princesses were probably taught to eat sushi instead of pizza, as she’d been. They were probably taken to galleries instead of amusement parks, just as she’d been.
Hannah let out a strangled breath. “I-I…married a frog pretending he was a prince. No! He was more like a giant toad!”
“Is he under a witch’s spell?”
She thought of her twin’s sultry beauty. “Possibly.”
Kneeling beside the child, Hannah pulled her rings off her left hand and handed them to her.
The little girl held the rings up to the light, and the three-karat diamond sparked like fire. “They’re pretty,” she squealed.
Hannah remembered how her breath had caught when James had joined her on that bench a year ago in the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, her favorite spot outdoors in the city. Looking at the ring brought back the eager warmth in his blue eyes and the memory of how his hands had shaken as he’d slipped the ring onto her finger.
He’d never hidden the fact that he’d been anxious to belong to her set, but had he ever loved her…passionately?
She’d always wanted someone to love, someone who loved her; someone who didn’t expect her to constantly compete and win; someone who simply loved her for who she was, as Daddy had always loved Nell. Hannah still wanted it so badly.
She should have paid more attention to James, made more time for him.
Maybe then she wouldn’t feel so clueless and lost now.
Fighting tears again and hating herself for her weakness, Hannah closed her eyes. She’d cried enough over James and Nell. Medical school had taught her that sentiment made her a sap and clouded her judgment but that anger made her strong…even calm.
Hannah’s hand clenched. “They’re yours.”
“Are you sure about this?” the child’s mother asked.
“Pawn them. Do whatever you like with them.” Hannah stood up. “I’ve never been more certain about anything in my whole life.”
If only that were true. For years she’d known exactly where she was going--because her ambitious mother had always been right behind her to point the way.
With a grim smile, Hannah remembered her mother standing over her at the kitchen table every afternoon after the nanny had rushed her home from pre-school so a private tutor could prep her for the ERB, the entrance exam that was vital to get into the right kindergarten.
Her whole life had been about planning and achieving, so Mother could bask in her reflected glory. Nothing else had mattered but pleasing her parents-
-Mother because she needed Hannah to be perfect, and Daddy because she hoped that someday he would love her best.
Where had all her accomplishments gotten her? She’d humiliated herself and her family. There was no way she could go to her mother and father and explain, not when status and position were everything to them.
Hannah had the sickening feeling that she’d been on the wrong track for a long time. Maybe her entire family was off course. In a functioning family a twin wouldn’t have done what Nell had done. Twins shouldn’t be constantly vying for what the other had. They should support each other.
What was wrong with us?
No, she couldn’t face her family now when they were a big part of what was wrong.
Hannah felt as if the foundation of her life had shifted, as if she was no longer sure about anything except that she had to get out of New York and be on her own.
The one thing that offered a ray of hope was the fact that she had nearly the whole month of December off before she returned to her killer schedule at the hospital and had to face James, the holidays, her family and her colleagues again.
Even though she couldn’t imagine what she’d do for nearly four weeks at the Hideaway Ranch alone other than lick her wounds, she knew that this hadn’t happened out of the blue. A lot was wrong about her life.
She was taking December off.
She needed space and time to process. She had to figure out why her life had fallen apart and what she could do about it.
And maybe, just maybe if she got the chance, she’d indulge in some revenge sex. Maybe then she could erase James Colt’s silly grin and Nell’s awful triumph once and for all.
The country music that whined from the vintage jukebox at the Lonesome Dove Bar was having a hard time competing with the norther blasting the wooden building with gale-force winds and rain.
Liam Stark liked the racket. It sure beat listening to Homer Gonzales, the local sheriff and his best friend, and Gabe Stark, Liam’s older cousin, who’d both stopped by to give him their weekly lecture about what he needed to do to turn his life around. Gabe, who was probably worth nearly a billion dollars, was used to people at Stark Energy, his international oil company, doing what he said.
Check out an online dating service. Meet a woman. Go to church. He’d heard it all.
Go to church? Give me a break! Coming from Homer and Gabe, that was a joke. Was that their best?
Liam breathed a sigh of relief when Homer’s mobile buzzed. Hopefully someone in the county was up to mischief, which meant his nosy, interfering friend Homer would have to get off his back and go wrestle handcuffs on some trespasser or drunk.
Homer sighed wearily as he put his phone to his ear. “Hell. Why can’t people in this damn county ever behave?”
Liam smiled. “It’s a weekend. What the hell do you expect?” “You’re right. If people started behavin’ better, I’d be out of a job.”
Homer slapped a couple of dollars on the bar. “I’d have to move, and you’d only have Gabe here riding your sorry ass.”
“Did you find out what happened to that woman who went missing last weekend?”
Homer frowned and shook his head as he listened to the caller.
A drug detail saleswoman’s battered car had been found on the side of the road about ten miles to the south of Lonesome. The woman, a Corpus Christi local, had vanished without a trace.
Homer ended the call. “Sorry, gotta go. See y’all around.”
Homer was tall, handsome, and black. Since there weren’t any other black men in the county, he stood out.
“You okay?” Gabe leaned in closer, filling the gap Homer had left.
Okay? Liam fought to suppress a shudder. Not that he wasn’t used to going through the motions when his older cousin, who was practically like his big brother since they’d been raised together, expressed concern.
Hell, when in recent memory had he been okay? “Doin’ fine,” he growled defiantly.
He knew Gabe and Homer had dropped by the Lonesome Dove Bar tonight because they wanted to help. But they couldn’t help. Nobody could.
They were worried he was like his mother and would do what she’d done.
But he wasn’t like her. He’d get through this anniversary…somehow…like he had last year.
Another gust whistled outside in the eaves.
Northers never used to bother him, but that was before Mindy had had the accident at Dead Man’s Curve while driving in a winter storm two years
Don’t think about Mindy. Or Charlie. Or Dead Man’s Curve. Or all the
others who died on that nasty stretch of road.
He forced his mind to his ranch and wondered if the old roof on his barn would hold. If he were back at the cabin, he’d probably be drinking himself into oblivion because this was one night he hated to face sober.
“Business sure is off,” Gabe said. “Weather…”
“Not my problem. Not my mortgage,” Liam replied. “Just filling in for Hector because Ben is home from college and Sam wanted to celebrate.
“You never say no when it comes to Ben.” “Neither the hell do you,” Liam replied.
Hector and Sam Montoya had grown up at El Castillo on the North Star Ranch side by side with Liam and Gabe. Even though they’d been his aunt’s housekeeper’s sons, the four of them had grown up cowboying and had been as close as brothers.
When Kate, Gabe’s younger sister, had become pregnant by Sam and had had Ben, Liam’s relationship with the Montoyas had thickened. After her accident at Dead Man’s Curve, she’d relinquished her parental rights to Ben and had fled Lonesome.
Ben was kin who’d been abandoned by his mom. Maybe since Liam had been orphaned young, he found it easy to identify with the kid. Maybe he was doing’ it for Kate.
Draining his whiskey glass—the first and hopefully the last for the night, at least, till after he drove home—Liam directed his steely black gaze past Gabe to a couple of rough looking truckers who were getting too rowdy.
Gabe followed his eye. “I’ve got an early plane in the morning.”
“Always wheeling and dealing,” Liam said. “Where are you going this time?”
“The Middle East.”
One of the truckers kicked over a chair.
“Hell, looks like we let the sheriff escape too soon. You gonna need backup with that pair before I go?”
“No, but thanks for stopping by…and for offering.”
“You’d do the same for me.” Gabe pushed away from the bar and Liam followed him to the door where they said a final goodbye.
When one of the truckers kicked a second chair over as Liam was on his way back to the bar, Liam stopped dead in his tracks. A fight would be just the thing to take his mind off the fatal anniversary that had him in the mood for the kind of oblivion only a bottle of whiskey and a willing woman could give him.
Suddenly he was glad Hector had asked him to help out. Alone at the ranch, it was too easy to think. Too easy to remember getting off that plane,
expecting Mindy and Charlie to come flying into his arms, only to have Gabe walk toward him instead, his expression so grim, Liam had known instantly his wife and son were gone.
Hell of a thing to come home to after the nightmare of Afghanistan.
Not that he wanted to dwell on what had happened in the desert any more than he wanted to dwell on the accident that had robbed him of his family, but whether he was drunk or sober, alone or in company, those losses ate at him every time he let down his guard.
The first year, he’d stayed drunk; this past year he’d stayed to himself and damn near worked himself to death. A working ranch was good for that, at least. Tonight he’d stared at himself in the mirror of his medicine cabinet in his downstairs bathroom for a longer time than he usually did when he felt this down. Then he’d remembered finding his mother lying white and cold on her bed, and he hadn’t opened the cabinet. Instead, intending to pour himself a drink, he’d been on his way to the kitchen when Hector had called.
His eye on his liquor on the counter, Liam had said he was busy, but
Hector had countered, “Busy with a bottle, I bet. Hell, tonight’s no night for you to be alone. Besides, I need you. Ben’s home.”
“Get Bobby B.” B was a local who hung out at the bar a lot and liked to tend bar.
“I’d rather have you.”
Aside from four tables of truckers, only a few of the local regulars,
including Bobby B, had shown up to occupy their usual perches. Liam didn’t
blame Lonesome’s citizens for drinking at home tonight, the weather being what it was.
Suddenly the two burly truckers near the door stood up roaring, their fists raised.
Stealthy as a cat Liam eased toward them. “Guys, you need to move it outside.”
The bigger man leered. “Just a friendly little discussion.” His wide grin was short a front tooth. He had a hooked nose and a dark complexion. A prematurely gray thatch of hair stuck out from under a grubby baseball cap turned backwards.
“Move it outside,” Liam repeated.
Fists tightening, Hooked Nose puffed out his barrel chest and meaty shoulders. He had an impressive two inches in height and more than fifty pounds on Liam. But when Liam repositioned himself so that his back was to the wall and leaned in close enough to be hit by the boozy stench of garlic and cigarettes, something the man saw in Liam’s eyes made the color drain from his cheeks.
“Sorry.” His flabby jaw slackened. Unclenching his beefy hands, he
raised them in mock surrender. “Hal and me here, we ain’t lookin’ for no fight.” Keeping his hands in the air, he sank back into his chair.
Hal scowled down at his friend and then at Liam before he, too, fell back into his chair and took a grudging pull from his bottle.
Satisfied he’d put out the fire, Liam was on his way back to the bar when the doors behind him banged open. As he turned, a rush of icy, wet air and a slim, stylish woman unlike any he’d seen around Lonesome for a spell blew inside.
Breathing hard, she was clutching a soggy Texas roadmap and her cell phone as if her life depended on them.
The last thing he needed was a smoking hot woman in his bar. No sooner had the dozen or so truckers in the establishment gotten an eyeful, than the atmosphere grew super-charged with an overdose of adrenaline and liquored- up testosterone.
Despite the fact that her long, light-colored hair was dripping all over the scarred, oak floor, her mascara was smudged, and her clingy, aqua blouse and butt-hugging jeans were soaked through, the city gal was a stunner.
This was bad. She was dynamite, and his job was to keep sparks from
Not that she paid the men or him any mind. Oh, no, she was in her own
little world. Sticking her nose in the air, she marched past the rough crowd to a table in a corner where she sat down, hung a black, puffy down jacket on the back of her chair and turned her back on the lot of them.
Like most civilians, she wasn’t paying nearly enough attention to her surroundings. Too intent on her phone, she kept punching buttons with a ferocity that told him she was royally pissed about something.
Hell. She made him feel invisible.
She was probably the kind of woman who never looked twice at anybody she considered beneath her…certainly not a guy she’d see as a hick cowboy bartender in an out-of-the-way bar filled with lonely truckers. Probably nothing mattered to her—except what she wanted. She wasn’t like his sweet, selfless Mindy, who would have sacrificed anything to make him happy.
Mindy… Loss slammed him so hard he knotted his fists. As he fought the wave of pain that grabbed his heart and squeezed so hard he couldn’t breathe, he almost hated the city gal for making him pine for his beloved wife as well as his other losses.
Grief: one second he was okay, that is, if being half dead and needing a long gulp of whiskey to hold himself together for one more hour was ‘okay’.
Then something would set him off, like this cocky piece of city ass with her haunted eyes and attitude, who had no business sashaying into his bar in that look-at-me outfit on a Friday night with four tables of horny truckers. Then suddenly, because of her, he wasn’t okay.
Why the hell would a cold fish like this gal make him think, no ache, for his precious Mindy? But she did. She brought it all back. The yearning…the sweetness…the closeness…how good it had felt…living with and loving a good woman after years of feeling all alone after his parents and Uncle Vince had died. This gal made him remember how nice it had been to wake up in the middle of a cold night and feel safe with Mindy’s bottom curled warmly against his thighs.
All gone now. He’d learned early, after his parents’ deaths, there was nothing he or anybody else could ever do to make it right again. Not that Uncle Vince hadn’t tried—but then he’d died too.
An accident, they’d called it. But who knew? Uncle Vince had left a big estate, so there had been odd skid marks and rumors that his truck had been run off the road deliberately into that raging creek. When Liam’s aunt had been quick to remarry, the gossips had had a field day.
Suddenly Liam’s grief was as fresh and visceral as it had been when he’d gotten off the plane and Gabe had been there instead of Mindy.
Furious at this woman for making him yearn for what he spent every waking moment trying to forget, Liam turned his broad-shoulders on her and strode to the bar where he quickly poured himself a whiskey.
Trying to ignore her, he stared into his drink. The truckers could eat her alive for all he cared.
Still, when the truckers invited her to their table, and she coolly refused them, and they muttered a few lewd insults under their breath, Liam stood up taller.
The guys in his platoon had said he had ears like a cat. A man learned to stay alert, when the price for relaxing might be a bullet between his eyes or a piece of shrapnel severing his windpipe.
Her silky voice with its rapid, Yankee cadence curled inside his gut and made him feel warm and needy, something it had no right to do.
He’d shut that part of himself down in Afghanistan. He’d shut it down even further when he’d erected two more white crosses at Dead Man’s Curve after Mindy and Charlie had been buried.
He didn’t want to feel, but suddenly his heart was pounding inside his ribcage, and he couldn’t think about a damn thing but the woman.
In a barely audible tone Hook Nose called her a bad name. When Liam looked up and found her blushing and staring daggers through him, not the trucker, shock lit every nerve in his body.
Excuse me. Why did she see him as the problem?
Frowning, she held up a hand and signaled.
Okay. He got it. She saw him as a servant and wanted him to come over to her table and take her order and was annoyed because he hadn’t.
Fusing her eyes to his, she beckoned him again, this time with a single fingertip.
He looked down at his whiskey glass. When hell freezes over, lady.