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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ultimatum by Anne Carrole 

“Is this some sort of ultimatum?” Cole couldn’t wrap his mind around what she was saying. He wiped his sweaty hands on his chaps and then pulled the brim of his Stetson down, hoping to hide the surprise that was surely on his face. His stomach felt like a vise gripped it.

Lila Parks shifted her stance and jutted her pretty little chin. Dressed in a black suit with a short skirt, high heels and a wisp of lace peeking from that fancy jacket, she looked sexy as hell and totally out of place on the Flying H, but it was because of her there even was a Flying H.

“Take it as you will, Cole. But I need your answer by the end of the week.” She brushed back a strand of brown hair. Cole liked her hair long and free, cascading around her face and past her shoulders in those soft waves he was fond of fingering.

“Why now, Lila? I thought we’ve been going along just fine.”

Never in a million years had he expected this showdown. Hell, they’d made love only two days ago—slow, sweet, bone melting love. The kind of love-making that brought him to his knees, made him start to think about the future. With her. But that was it—he’d just started thinking in those terms and she was already asking him to agree to them.

She bit on her lower lip as if she was nervous. Those gorgeous brown eyes of hers reminded him of a lost puppy’s. “They’ve offered me a spot in the Austin branch. I have to let them know by Friday.”

Austin? He took a hard swallow past the lump forming in his throat. Austin was almost four hundred miles away, more than a six hour drive. Of course they’d want her. She was a damn fine lawyer. She’d won his case against powerful interests who wanted to condemn his land for a shady deal in the name of “public good.” No one had given him a chance, especially when he’d hired a newly minted lawyer—the best he could afford—from a prestigious law firm. She’d proven newly-minted didn’t mean naive.

Hours of depositions, days of proceedings, months of maneuvering, they’d fallen into bed together, fallen into each other lives, but had they fallen in love?

“It’s a great opportunity for you.”

“Yes. It is. Which is why I can’t turn it down without a good reason.”

She was looking to him for a reason, but did he have a good one? She’d believed in him when no one else had. Smart and so achingly beautiful, at first he’d felt both attracted to and intimidated by her. Over time, he’d admired her competence and been proud of her abilities. She’d become a part of his life, helping him renovate the ranch house kitchen, selecting the colors, the appliances, everything, until he felt like she’d been woven into his life.

How could he ask her to give up all she’d been working for to join him on a rundown cutting horse ranch? She was bright, successful and full of the drive and ambition necessary to make it at the top of the rung. He was just a Texas cowboy, who liked things slow and steady and had no need to do more than get by—and keep the ranch that had been in his family for four generations.

Lila stared at the man she loved. She’d evidently misread the signals. And now she’d trapped him, pinned him against a wall and his clenched jaw said he didn’t like it. The crack in her heart was going to hurt like the dickens.

He took a deep breath. “I don’t need until next Friday. You should take that position. It’s what you’ve worked for, it’s what you want. You’ll have a wonderful future.”

Tears sprang to her eyes. Her lip quivered but she held his gaze. “Have a nice life, cowboy.” She turned from him. Damn if she’d let him see her cry. She’d been so certain what they had was real—for her it was. Always would be.

She walked uncertainly over the loose gravel of the trail. Why hadn’t she’d waited. Driving out to the ranch dressed for the city only made it clearer to him how different they were. But they weren’t different. Not in what they valued. Land, history, each other—or so she thought.

She’d gone about a hundred feet before she stopped. She was walking away from him and the ranch they’d fought so hard for—the land she’d come to love along with the man. The ache in her chest tightened and she could barely breathe.

“Lila.” His gravelly voice floated over the light breeze.

She turned to face him. Tall, proud, strong, stubborn, and all cowboy, he stood right where she’d left him.

“Don’t go.”

“Why?”

“I can’t…I can’t let you go without…”

Her heart skittered.

“Without letting you know that I love you, honey. I just can’t ask you to give up your dreams for mine.”

She stood frozen; wondering if she could believe her ears, could believe him. The misery etching his face said this was hard for him.

“Ask me,” she said, knowing she was pushing and unable to stop.

He swallowed hard but his gaze didn’t leave her. “Marry me.”

Like a gun had fired, she began running, her heart pumping, her feet slipping in the damn pointy heels. He took off, met her half way. Not until he wrapped those muscled arms around her and she felt the hard plane of his chest and the warmth of his body did she relax.

“You scared the hell of me, Cole Hutton.”

He gave her a lop-sided smile, like the time he’d caught her naked in his shower. “Scared the hell out of myself.”

His firm lips claimed her in a searing kiss; tongue on tongue and breath on breath.

About the Author: Anne Carrole writes contemporary and western historical romances—always with strong-willed heroes and stronger-willed heroines. Married to her own urban cowboy, she’s also the proud mother of a teenage cowgirl. An ardent western history buff and unabashed romantic, she is the co-founder of Love Western Romances, a website where lovers of western romance can find the latest releases in their favorite genre, read reviews and interviews with authors like Linda Lael Miller, Leigh Greenwood and Bobbi Smith among others. Her short story, For Love of A Cowboy, is featured there.

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