A Real Cowboy. A Real Home?
Rafe Rodriguez never reckoned on playing hero to a beautiful, big-city stranger. But when he saves Valentine Jones from a charging bull, this Rodriguez brother's fate is all but sealed. The Hollywood photographer is on location in Forever to scout out an authentic dude ranch. And nothing could feel more real—or right—than the fiery feelings Val's awakening in Rafe. And he knows just how their real-life romance should end!
Haunted by tragedy, Val knows life isn't like the movies. Still, a girl could get used to having a sexy protector like Rafe around. The Texas rancher is wreaking havoc with her credo of never settling in one place. Is Val headed for heartbreak again? Or has she finally found a place to belong with this cowboy who's starting to make her believe in forever?
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This USA TODAY bestselling and RITA ® Award-winning author has written more than two hundred books for Harlequin Books and Silhouette Books, some under the name Marie Nicole. Her romances are beloved by fans worldwide. Visit her website at www.marieferrarella.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
She was gorgeous.
Had he forgotten his tan Stetson at the house, the way he occasionally did, Raphael Rodriguez might have been inclined to believe that he'd gotten sunstroke and was having his very first hallucination.
But his Stetson was firmly planted on his head—he actually reached up to touch the brim to make sure it was there. And, although it was rather warm for the middle of January—winters here in Forever, Texas, were usually mild—it's wasn't that hot. At least, not hot enough to produce either heatstroke or mirages. This morning, initially, there'd even been a slight nip in the air to remind him that winter wasn't quite finished with them yet.
All in all, this had been a more eventful winter than usual, at least for his family. It had been a winter where his twin brother, Gabriel, had found the girl of his dreams. Gabe and the woman he called "Angel" were getting married in April.
Rafe had to admit—although only silently to himself—that he was somewhat envious of his twin.
Angel was incredibly sweet and he'd never seen Gabe so happy. At times, the man seemed to be walking five inches off the ground.
The thought of finding someone of his own to settle down with had been on Rafe's mind a great deal lately.
Was that why he thought he saw this gorgeous vision in the distance now? She couldn't be real. Not this beautiful redhead with a killer body standing smack dab in the middle of his ranch.
His family's ranch, Rafe amended. The property belonged to his family in the truest sense of the word since their father, Miguel Sr., had changed the deed to the ranch from listing him as the sole owner to putting down all their names, dividing the property in equal shares between all of them.
That particular action had come about at their father's insistence because they'd all had a part in keeping the bank from foreclosing on the ranch. Each one of them had gotten at least a part-time job, turning over their meager paychecks to their father so that he could stay abreast of the mortgage and their late mother's mountain of medical bills. That selfless act, the senior Rodriguez had said, was what entitled them to an equal share of the sprawling ranch.
As he drove his Jeep in closer, Rafe couldn't take his eyes off her.
A woman like that looked completely out of place in a place like this. She had to be a figment of his imagination. But he'd already figured out that he wasn't experiencing sunstroke and all he'd had to eat this morning were scrambled eggs and some coffee that could have been labeled as solid. The regular housekeeper was on vacation visiting her sister so it had been Miguel Jr.'s turn to cook, or do whatever it was that his oldest brother felt passed for cooking.
But Mike kept things simple, so it was safe to say that Rafe hadn't ingested anything that would have caused a hallucination like this in the middle of his morning.
Steadily decreasing the distance between them, Rafe couldn't help wondering when the woman was going to disappear. He couldn't get over the feeling that she just might be a mirage created by his brain because he was currently without female companionship and Eli, Alma and Gabe were all either married or spoken for.
Was that why he was having this vision?
He'd driven out here to the northern region of the ranch for a reason. He was looking over the miles of fencing, searching for a hole or a break in it anywhere. At last count, they were short a few head of cattle. Since it was doubtful that anyone in the area would actually bother to rustle a meager five or six head, his father thought that the cattle might have just wandered off because of a break in the fencing, most likely caused by the spate of inclement weather they'd just experienced.
"Either that, or the coyotes around here have learned how to steal and use wire cutters," Ramon—who preferred being called Ray—had cracked at the table this morning before breakfast.
Rafe had been quick to volunteer to be the one to drive the length of the fence, checking for a break. If he hadn't he would have been stuck with kitchen cleanup. Given the choice, he would always rather be outdoors, even driving around for hours, than stuck washing and drying dishes. It wasn't that he viewed that kind of work as "woman's work," just "indoor" work. Time out in the open won out every time.
But this vision was inexplicable. And she wasn't vanishing.
The woman, with her needle-straight hair—hair the color of the sun's first blush at sunrise—dipping halfway down her slender back, was still there.
Anticipation telegraphed through Rafe's body, putting his pulse on high alert.
Now that he was getting close enough to discern details more clearly, Rafe saw that she was doing something other than taking in the view. She was preoccupied taking pictures with a camera that appeared way too large and sturdy for a typical tourist. She wasn't just some outsider who'd lost her way and had decided to pause and take a few pictures of the land she'd wandered onto.
She looked to him to be a woman with a mission.
Part of him would have opted to stop driving and just watch her for a little while. Watch her moving about, looking as close to poetic as the photographs she appeared to be framing.
But just as he was considering shutting off his car engine and silently observing her, the slender woman with the flowing strawberry-red hair turned around to look at him.
She was even more striking from the front than she was from the back.
And she was looking straight at him.
Her smile was infectious. Rather than sound generic, the one-word greeting she offered him somehow seemed incredibly personal. "Hi."
"Hi," Rafe echoed. For a moment, he just sat there in his Jeep, looking at her. Unable to make a move.
Maybe she was a hallucination after all. The woman seemed completely unfazed at being discovered trespassing. There was no uneasiness or discomfort over the fact that he'd discovered her in a place she clearly didn't belong.
In his experience, the few tourists that drifted through Forever eyed the local population a bit warily, as if they weren't quite sure just how civilized these "natives" actually were—if they ate with utensils or still used their fingers when they were consuming their meals.
The thought had the corners of his mouth curving.
The woman, he noted, also, wasn't making any breathless confessions as to why she was trespassing, nor was she launching into any kind of an elaborate explanation as to what she was doing here this far from town.
As a matter of fact, she wasn't saying anything at all, which struck Rafe as rather unique. In his experience, women usually took charge of the conversation and, on the average, did a hell of a lot more talking than men.
At least his sister Alma made it seem that way.
Rafe turned off his vehicle's engine as an afterthought and got out of the Jeep.
The woman had lowered her camera and was now watching him much the way he had been watching her.
Except that she had what he could only call a bemused expression on her face.
Was there some joke he was missing, or was that just her way of trying to disarm him?
Whatever it was, it was working.
He started the conversation with the obvious by asking her, "You do know that you're on private land, right?"
Her smile answered him before her words did. It was as if there was some silent communication going on.
Definitely a hallucination, he couldn't help thinking one final time.
"Yes, I do," she replied, still wearing that wide, inviting grin, "and I think that this is exactly what my boss is look for."
So she was a real estate agent? It hardly seemed likely. He'd never seen her before and Forever was not exactly destined to become a thriving metropolis in the next decade or so. Everyone in town had at least a nodding acquaintance with everyone else who lived in or around the area—unless they were strangers, fresh from some other place.
Since he didn't want the woman wasting her time and his, there was only one answer he could give her.
"It's not for sale."
There was no way that anyone in his family would be willing to part with the ranch, or even the smallest section of the ranch. This land was far more than just square footage to them. It was their heritage, it was tied to their childhood and more importantly, it was their invisible connection with their mother. You didn't sell something like that no matter what the offer turned out to be.
"Oh, he wouldn't want to buy it," the sexy woman informed him brightly. "If I'm right about this—and I usually am," she added without the slightest bit of bravado or vanity, "he'll be interested in renting it."
Rafe's deep brown eyes narrowed beneath his tan Stetson. He tried desperately to make sense out of what the redhead was telling him. He guessed that brains didn't come along with the beauty. Such a shame.
"Renting it?" he questioned. That really wasn't an option, either. "I'm sorry, but—"
Rafe didn't get a chance to turn her down. Lowering her camera so that it now just hung from a strap, its lens pointing, unfocused, at the ground, she moved closer to him.
"Wait," she requested, raising her voice just enough to register a tad louder than his. "Hear me out, please." She gestured around the terrain with open enthusiasm. "This place is absolutely perfect."
"And we intend to keep it that way," he told her in no uncertain terms.
Gorgeous or not, he wasn't about to let himself be turned around by the woman and make promises he had no right to make nor keep, even if he could—which he couldn't. Everything that went on at the ranch was decided by a vote—and they all had a vote. So he couldn't accept any offers she might make.
It really didn't matter what the knockout in the sexy jeans that adhered to her like a second skin had in mind or was going to say.
He supposed that, in all fairness, he should hear her out. Let the woman talk. And then he would give her the bottom line: the Rodriguez land was not for sale.
"I guess maybe leasing it would be a better term for what I'm proposing." She turned to face him directly. Her eyes were dancing and he found them absolutely mesmerizing—not that this changed the situation. "In my opinion, this place is absolutely perfect."
Well, that certainly echoed his feelings on the subject. He had never experienced an iota of wanderlust. Forever was where he belonged. Specifically, on the family ranch.
"We like to think so," he responded. "But this has also been in the family for several generations now and we don't—"
Again, the woman interrupted him before he could finish his sentence and terminate the conversation. "We'd put it back just the way we found it," she promised. "We've got a great cleanup crew."
He stopped the protest that was on his lips and looked at her. Just who was "we?" And he had another question.
"Cleanup crew?" he asked. "You travel with a cleanup crew?" Who included that in their entourage? Just what did this woman do for a living?
"I don't," she clarified, "but the production company does." And then she laughed, realizing that, as usual, she'd gotten ahead of herself. "Maybe I should start at the beginning."
"Maybe you should," he agreed, waiting for her to start making some sense.
Reaching into the pocket of the fringed vest she was wearing, the woman plucked out a business card and offered it to him. At the same time, she told him what was written on it.
"I'm Valentine Jones—Val to my friends," she interjected. She didn't expect the name to mean anything to him, although within the business, she was beginning to build up a fairly good reputation. "And I'm a location scout."
Rafe glanced down at the card she'd handed him. There was a colorful logo on it that looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it. He only knew he'd seen it before, but on a larger scale. He offered to give her back her card, but she shook her head, silently indicating that he should keep it for future reference.
Not that there would be any, he thought, resigned.
"At the risk of sounding ignorant, what's a location scout?" he asked.
Rather than laugh at the question, the way he half expected her to, Val flashed a smile at him that was equal parts understanding and unsettlingly sensual.
"I'm surprised you haven't been approached about this before now. A location scout is exactly what it sounds like—I scout different locations."
He saw no reason for that. "Why?"
"For movies," she answered simply.
Her mother had been a starlet with a minor degree of success and fame. She had moved on to be a far more successful casting director, while her father was a well-known and much-in-demand cinematographer. Movies and Hollywood had always been part of her life. At times, it was hard for her to remember that a good many people she dealt with were outside the industry and as such, had to be educated as to what she did.
Rafe was trying to make sense out of what she was telling him. "You mean like for a movie theater? You're looking to build a movie theater out here?" he asked incredulously. This definitely was off the beaten path. It would make far more sense to put up more movie theaters in the center of town, next to the one they already had.
"No, I'm looking to film a movie here." That made it sound as if she was the one who made the movie and she wasn't. "Or rather, my boss is—or he will be once I send him these pictures I just took." Again, Val realized she was getting ahead of herself. There were questions she had to ask first. "The ranch house I saw coming out here was absolutely perfect for the story, just the right blend of old-fashioned and modern. You are the owner, right?" she looked at him hopefully.
Rafe inclined his head. "I'm one of them."
Val experienced what she could only term was a slight sinking, disappointed feeling gelling in the pit of her stomach. "Your wife?" she asked, guessing as to who the other owner was.
Rafe laughed as he shook his head. "More like my father and my siblings," he clarified.
"Siblings," Val echoed, nodding her head. The sinking feeling disappeared as if it hadn't been there to begin with. She could feel her mouth curving. "Siblings are good," she pronounced.
"They seem to think so," Rafe told her. "And that goes for my father, too," he added.
Val nodded. She'd heard him specify his father the first time. It looked like she was about to present her case before a comm...
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