McKettricks of Texas: Austin
New York Times and USA Today Bestseller
World champion rodeo star Austin McKettrick finally got bested by an angry bull. His career over, his love life a mess, the lone maverick has nowhere to go when the hospital releases him. Except back home to Blue River and the Silver Spur ranch. But his overachieving brothers won’t allow this cowboy to brood in peace. They’ve even hired a nurse to speed his recovery. Paige Remington’s bossy brand of TLC is driving him crazy. As is her beautiful face, sexy figure and silky black hair.
Paige has lost count of how many times Austin has tried to fire her. She’s not going anywhere till he’s healed—body and heart.
And by then her place in his life just might become permanent….
The evil brides were gaining on her, closing the gap.
Paige Remington ran blindly down a dark country road, legs pumping, lungs burning, her heart flailing in her throat. Slender tree branches plucked at her from either side with nimble, spidery fingers, slowing her down, and the ground turned soft under her feet.
She pitched forward onto her hands and knees. Felt pebbles dig into her palms.
Behind her, the brides screeched and cackled in delighted triumph.
“This is only a dream,” Paige told herself. “Wake up.”
Still, sleep did not release her.
Flurries of silk and lace, glittering with tiny rhinestones and lustrous with the glow of seed pearls, swirled around her. She felt surrounded, almost smothered.
Suddenly furious, the dream Paige surged to her feet.
If the monsters wanted a fight, then by God, she’d give it to them.
Confronting her pursuers now, staring directly at them, Paige recognized the brides. They were—and at the same time, in that curious way of dreams, were not—her sisters, Libby and Julie.
Wedding veils hid their faces, but she knew them anyway. Libby wore a luscious vintage gown of shimmering ivory, while Julie’s dress was ultra modern, a little something she’d picked up on a recent romantic getaway to Paris.
“We just want you to try on your bridesmaid’s dress,” the pair said, in creepy unison. “That’s all.”
“No,” Paige said. “I’m not trying on the damn dress. Leave me alone.”
They advanced upon her. Garment bags had materialized in their arms.
“But you’re our only bridesmaid,” the two chorused.
“No!” Paige repeated, trying to retreat but stuck fast.
It was then that a voice penetrated the thick surface of the dream. “Hey,” the voice said, low and male and disturbingly familiar. “You okay?”
She felt a hand on her shoulder and woke up with a jolt.
And a face full of Austin McKettrick.
“It just keeps getting worse,” she marveled, gripping the arms of the pool side chair where she’d fallen asleep after a solitary lunch in the ranch house kitchen.
Austin laughed, drew up a chair himself, and eased into it with the care of a man much older than his twenty eight years. His beard was coming in, buttery brown, and his hair looked a little shaggy.
It ought to require a license, being that good looking.
“Gee,” he drawled. “Thanks.”
It galled Paige that after all this time, he could still make her heart flutter. “What are you doing here?” she demanded.
Austin settled back, popping the top on a beer can, letting her know he meant to take his sweet time answering. A scruffy looking dog meandered in and settled at his booted feet with a little huff of contented resignation.
“I reckon if anybody’s going to demand explanations around here,” Austin said, at long last, “it ought to be me. I live here, Paige.”
She’d set herself up for that one. Even seen it coming. And she’d been unable to get out of the way.
Paige drew a deep breath, released it slowly. “I’ve been staying in the guest suite for a couple of days,” she said, after a few moments. “The lease was up on my apartment and the renovations on our old house aren’t quite finished, so—”
Austin’s eyes were a lethal shade of blue—‘heirloom’ blue, as Paige thought of it, a mixture of new denim and summer sky and every hue in between. According to local legend, the McKettricks had been passing that color down for generations.
He studied her for a long time before speaking again. Set the beer aside without taking a sip. “My brothers,” he said, “are marrying your sisters.”
Paige sighed. “So I’ve heard,” she said.
Austin ignored the slightly snippy response, went on as if she hadn’t said anything. “That means,” he told her, “that you and I are going to have to learn to be civil to each other. In spite of our history.”
Paige recalled some of that history—youthful, frenzied lovemaking, upstairs in Austin’s boyhood bedroom, the two of them dancing under the stars to music spilling from the CD player in his relic of a truck.
And the fights.
She closed her eyes, remembering the fights, and her cheeks burned pink.
She glared at him.
“Is it a deal?” he asked quietly.
“Is what a deal?” she snapped.
Austin sighed, shoved a hand through his hair. He looked thinner than the last time she’d seen him, and shadows moved behind the light in his eyes. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought he was in pain—maybe physical, maybe emotional.
He leaned toward her, spoke very slowly and very clearly, as though addressing a foreigner with language challenges. “Whether we like it or not, we’re going to be kin, you and me, once New Year’s rolls around. My guess is, my brothers and your sisters will still be married at the crack of doom. There’ll be a whole lot of Christmases and Thanksgivings and birthday parties to get through, over the years. All of which means—”
“I know what it means,” Paige broke in. “And what’s with the condescending tone of voice?”
Austin raised both eyebrows. A grin quirked at one corner of his mouth but never quite kicked in. “What’s with the bitchy attitude?” he countered. Then he snapped the fingers of his right hand. “Oh, that’s right. It’s just your normal personality.”
Paige rode out another surge of irritation. Much as she hated to admit it, Austin had a point.
Libby was marrying Tate.
Julie was marrying Garrett.
Tate’s twins, Audrey and Ava, were already part of the family, of course, and so was Julie’s little boy, Calvin. And both couples wanted more kids, right away.
Oh, yes, there would be a lot of birthday parties to attend.
“Could we try this again?” Paige asked moderately.
Austin tented his fingers under his chin and watched her with an expression of solemn merriment that was all his own. “Sure,” he replied, all fake generosity and ironic good will. “Go ahead and say something friendly—you can do it. Just pretend I’m a human being.”
Paige looked away, and a deep and inexplicable sadness swept over her. “We’re never going to get anywhere at this rate,” she said.
Time seemed to freeze for an instant, then grind into motion again, gears catching on rusty gears.
And then Austin leaned forward, took a light grip on her hand, ran the pad of his thumb over her knuckles.
A hot shiver went through her; he might have been touching her in all those secret, intimate places no one else had found.
“You’re right,” Austin said, his tone husky. “We’re not. Let’s give it a shot, Paige—getting along, I mean.”
He looked sincere.
He sounded sincere.
Watch out, Paige reminded herself silently.
“Okay,” she said, with dignity.
Another silence followed. Paige, for her part, was trying to imagine what a truce between herself and Austin would actually look like. After all, they’d hated each other since that summer night, soon after they’d both graduated from high school, when Paige had caught the lying, sneaking, no good bastard—
She drew another deep breath, mentally untangled herself from the past. As best she could.
Yes, she’d been in love with Austin. She’d lost—okay, given—her virginity to him, along with her trust and of course her heart.
Ultimately, he’d betrayed her.
But all that had happened more than ten years ago, before his folks, Jim and Sally McKettrick, were killed in that awful car accident, before her own dad had died of cancer. So very much had happened in the interim and, well, Paige was tired of holding a grudge.
“You were having a bad dream before?” Austin asked presently.
“Huh?” Paige said.
“When I woke you up a little while ago—?”
“Yes,” she answered, smiling a little. “Thanks for that.”
He grinned, making the pit of her stomach quiver for a moment, then reached for his can of beer. Raised it slightly in an off hand toast. “Anytime,” he said.
The dog whimpered, chasing something in his sleep. Or running away from something.
“Shep,” Austin said, nudging the animal gently with the toe of one boot. “Easy, now. You’re all right.”
Paige looked down at Shep. “A stray?”
Austin grinned again. This time, there was no smart ass edge to his tone. “What gave him away? The matted coat? The dirt, maybe?”
“The poor thing could use a bath,” Paige admitted. She’d always had a soft spot for animals—especially the abused, neglected and unwanted ones.
“Garrett promised to hose him down before supper,” Austin said. The way he spoke, it was no big deal.
Paige met his gaze, puzzled and not a little annoyed. “Supper’s a ways off,” she pointed out.
“He’ll keep,” Austin told her. “Won’t you, Shep?”
Paige glanced at her watch. She still had more than an hour before she was due to pick Calvin up in town, at daycare. Although she was a nurse by profession, she was between jobs at the moment, as well as between homes. Since Julie was practically meeting herself coming and going these days, between getting ready for the big wedding, holding down her teaching job at the high school, and directing the student musical production, Paige had been looking after her nephew a lot lately.
Since she adored Calvin, it was no hardship.
She stood. “I’ll do it,” she said.
“Do what?” Austin asked.
“Bathe the dog,” Paige answered, proud of herself for not adding, Since you can’t be bothered to do the job yourself.
“I told you,” Austin said, frowning. “Garrett will take care of Shep when he gets home.”
“No sense in putting it off,” Paige said, feeling sorry for the dog.
Shep hauled himself to his feet, watching her with a combination of wariness and hope. His tail swished tentatively to one side, then the other.
And Paige’s heart warmed and softened, like so much beeswax.
She crouched, looked straight into the dog’s limpid brown eyes.
“I wouldn’t hurt you,” she said, very gently. “Not for the world.”
Shep wagged again, this time with more trust, more spirit.
“Paige,” Austin interjected cautiously, “he’s sort of wild and he probably hasn’t had his shots—”
Paige put out a hand, let Shep sniff her fingers and palm and wrist.
She felt something akin to exultation when he didn’t retreat. “Nonsense,” she said. “He’s a sweetheart. Aren’t you, Shep?”
She straightened, saw that Austin was standing, too. If it hadn’t been for the dog, the man would practically have been on top of her.
So to speak.
Heat pulsed in her cheeks.
Something mischievous and far too knowing danced in Austin’s eyes. He folded his arms and tilted his head to one side, watching her. She had no clue what he was thinking, and that was even more unsettling.
In order to break the spell, Paige turned and headed for the main part of the house, moving resolutely.
She felt a little zing of triumph when she glanced back and saw the dog hesitate, then fall into step behind her.
Austin couldn’t really blame the dog for trailing after Paige—watching that perfect blue jeaned backside of hers as she walked away left him with little choice but to do likewise. Still, it stung his pride that Shep hadn’t waited for him.
Who’s dog was he, anyhow?
Paige’s apparently. She led the way, like some piper in a fairy tale, and Shep padded right along in her wake and that was how the three of them ended up in the laundry room, off the kitchen.
Paige knew her way around—she rustled up some old towels and the special mutt-shampoo Julie kept around for Harry—and started the water running in one of the big sinks. She spooled out the hand sprayer and pressed the squirter with a practiced thumb, testing the temperature against the underside of her left wrist.
The sight, ordinary as it was, did something peculiar to Austin.
“Well,” Paige said, dropping her gaze to the dog and then letting it fly back to Austin’s face, “don’t just stand there. Hoist Shep up into the sink so I can wash him.”
She smiled at Shep. “You’re going to feel so much better, once you’ve had your bath,” she assured the critter.
Austin had his pride. He wasn’t about to tell this woman that he’d blown his back and couldn’t risk lifting one skinny dog off the floor because he might wind up in traction or something.
He leaned down and carefully looped his arms under Shep’s belly. Set him gently in the laundry sink.
Paige introduced Shep to the sprayer with a few little blasts of warm water, and gave him time to sort out how he felt about the experience.
Austin, meanwhile, was just about to congratulate himself on getting away with lifting the dog when he felt a stabbing ache in the same part of his back as when he’d had to be half carried out of Pinky’s bar. He drew in a sharp breath and grasped the edge of the long counter, where the housekeeper, Esperanza, usually folded sheets and towels.
Steady, he thought. Wait it out.
Paige, occupied with sluicing down the dog, seemingly oblivious to the way the water was soaking the front of her skimpy t shirt, paid Austin no attention at all. And that was fine by him, mostly.
The spasm in Austin’s back intensified, a giant Charlie horse that he couldn’t walk off, like one in his calf or the arch of his foot. He bit down hard on his lower lip and shut his eyes.
“Austin?” Paige’s voice had changed. It was soft, worried sounding. “Is something wrong? You’re sort of pale and—”
Austin shook his head. The spasm was beginning to subside, though it still hurt like holy be Jesus, but talking was still beyond him.
He wouldn’t risk meeting her gaze. Back when they were just kids, and hot and¬-heavy into dating, Paige had shown a disturbing ability to read his mind—not to mention his soul—through his eyes.
Not that she’d been infallible in that regard.
Or maybe, when it really counted, she’d been too mad to look long enough, hard enough.
“I’m—fine,” he finally said. The pain was letting up.
Paige reached for the dog shampoo, squeezed a glistening trail of it down Shep’s sodden back, and began to suds him up.
“Excuse me,” Paige said matter of factly, “but you don’t look fine.”
Poor Shep looked up at him, all bedraggled and wet, but there was a patient expression in his eyes, a willingness to endure, that tightened Austin’s throat to the point where he couldn’t make a sound.
Paige, a head shorter than he was, bent her knees and turned to peer up into his face. “Are you sick?”
He shook his head again, helpless to do more than that.
“Austin,” she said firmly, “I am a nurse. I know a person in pain when I see one.”
When he went to answer, his back spasmed again. He tightened his hold on the counter’s edge, riding it out.
Paige simply waited, not fussing, not pressing for an answer. In fact, she rinsed the dog, soaped him up again, sprayed him down a second time.
Shep, who withstood all this without complaint, turned out to be buff colored, with a saddle like splotch of reddish brown running down the center of his back.
Paige congratulated the critter on his good looks and toweled him vigorously before lifting him out of the laundry sink and setting him on the floor.
Austin, by that time, could breathe again, but that was about all.
Paige turned to him, hands on her hips, t shirt clinging in intriguing places from the inevitable splashing.
Austin dragged his gaze, by force, from her perfect breasts to her face, though not quickly enough. Paige’s brown eyes were snapping with temper.
Or was it concern?
“Some things never change,” she said.
Austin sighed. He let go of the counter, relieved that the kink in his lower back had smoothed out. “What the hell do you mean by that?” he asked. Then, without waiting for an answer, he rushed on, fool that he was. “Okay, so I checked out your chest. I’m sorry you saw that.”
Her mouth twitched. “You’re sorry I caught you at it, you mean?”
“Yeah,” he admitted, unwilling to elaborate until he knew which way the mood¬-wind was blowing.
He’d forgotten what the sound of Paige Remington’s laughter did to him, how it made him feel dizzy inside, as though he’d been blindfolded, turned around half a dozen times, and then had the floor yanked out from under him.
Paige’s expression sobered, though the ghost of a grin flicked at one corner of her mouth and danced like a faint flame in her eyes. “What I meant,” she informed him, “when I said some things never change, I mean, was that you’re still too cussed and proud to let on when you need help.”
“I don’t need help,” Austin reasoned, wondering why it was so important to him to make that absolutely clear.
Shep broke loose with a good shaking then, flinging moisture over both of them.
“I’m not going to argue with you, Austin McKettrick,” Paige said.
He snorted at the irony of that statement.
“Something is wrong,” she said, ignoring his reaction. She headed back into the kitchen and Shep followed at a spritely pace, toenails clicking on the plank floor. “If you won’t tell me what it is, I can find out from Garrett or Tate.”
Austin waited until he was sure he could walk without any obvious hitches before stepping away from the counter. Paige was standing at the kitchen sink, washing her hands.
She wouldn’t look at him.
Still, she kept her eyes averted, and he knew from the stubborn angle of her chin that she wasn’t going to let this go. She meant to ask one or both of his brothers what was going on with him, and they’d tell her, putting their own spin on the story.
Damn it, it was his story to tell and, besides, he didn’t want any secondhand versions making the rounds. “My back goes out sometimes,” he said, very quietly. “That’s all.”
Paige turned to face him. “‘That’s all? Why didn’t you say that a few minutes ago, when I asked you to lift Shep into the sink?”
Austin tugged at an imaginary hat brim and answered, “Because I’m Texas born and bred, Ma’am, and therefore averse to letting a lady do my lifting.”
She just stood there for several long moments, looking at him like she was doing arithmetic in her head and none of the sums were coming out right.
Finally, she spoke.
“You idiot,” she said, with some affection.
Austin opened his mouth, closed it again, entirely at a loss.
She’d just insulted him, hadn’t she? And yet her tone, well, it made him feel all wrapped up in something warm.
Paige, oblivious to the strange effect she was having on him, checked her watch. “I’ve got to pick Calvin up,” she said, addressing no one in particular. “Want to come along for the ride?”
Did he ever.
She’s offering to let you ride in her car, fool. That’s all.
He shoved a hand through his hair. Did she really want his company, he wondered, or was she just afraid to leave the invalid cowboy alone in the house?
Hard telling, and it when it came right down to it, he didn’t care.
“Sure,” he said. “I guess.”
Paige rolled her marvelous eyes. “Well, that was ambivalent,” she replied. “Just let me change out of this wet t shirt, and we’ll go.”
“Do you have to?”
Her gaze narrowed, and her hands went back to her hips, but she was trying too hard not to grin to be angry. “Have to what?”
Austin waggled his eyebrows. “Change out of the wet t shirt?”
She widened her eyes at him, then turned and hurried off in the direction of the guest apartment.
It was all he could do not to tag along with her.
His mouth quirked. It wasn’t as if she’d let him watch her swap out her shirt.
Damn the luck.
Every nerve in her body was on red alert, and her heart seemed to skip every other beat.
It was her own fault.
What had she been thinking, asking Austin, of all people, if he’d like to ride to town with her?
Now here he was, big as life and busting with testosterone, sitting in her perfectly ordinary subcompact car, sliding the passenger seat back as far as it would go. Shep, still damp from his bath and smelling pleasantly of freshly shampooed dog, sat directly behind him.
Austin was taking up more than his fair share of room, she knew that much. If she wasn’t careful, their shoulders would touch.
All business, Paige took her sunglasses from the holder above her rear view mirror and put them on. Then she fastened her seatbelt and shifted into reverse and almost backed into the garage door.
Austin chuckled, reached up to push the button on the remote clasped to one of the window shades.
The garage door rolled up behind them.
“I would have remembered,” Paige said.
“Of course you would have,” Austin agreed lightly.
Paige knew if she looked at him, she’d catch him grinning.
Her cheeks ached with heat, and she was grateful for her sunglasses.
“I suppose you think you should drive,” she huffed, taking great care as she backed out into the driveway.
Austin spread his hands. “Did I say that?” he asked.
Paige sighed. “No.”
She managed to drive out of the garage without crashing into anything and pointed the car toward the massive iron gates standing open at the bottom of the driveway.
“Why are you so rattled?” Austin wanted to know.
Paige braked for the turn onto the main road. The coast was clear in both directions, but she came to a crawling stop anyhow.
“I am not rattled.”
“Yes, you are.”
“I am not.” She paused, sucked in a righteous breath. “Don’t flatter yourself, Austin. Not every woman is susceptible to your many charms, you know.”
He laughed. “I didn’t say that, either.”
Paige sniffed, indignant. “Some things,” she replied, “go without saying.”
Austin cocked an eyebrow at her as she pointed the car toward town. “No matter what I say,” he ventured, “you’re going to disagree. Right?”
“Right,” Paige said.
That time, they both laughed.
Austin folded his arms, closed his eyes, tilted his head back, the very picture of contented cowboy. Although Paige hated to give this particular man credit for anything, she had to admit, at least to herself, that he still had the power to short circuit her wiring.
He was so damnably at home in his own skin.
It would have bothered some men, riding shotgun instead of taking the wheel, but not Austin. Whatever he might have questioned in his lifetime, it hadn’t been his masculinity, Paige was sure of that.
Tate and Garrett were the same way. Maybe, she concluded, it was a McKettrick thing.
And why shouldn’t they be confident, all three of them? They had it all—good looks, money, a ranch that was large even by Texas standards, a name that commanded respect.
Heat climbed Paige’s neck, and her throat tightened, and her heart started racing again.
Of course that was when he hit her with the question, when she was least prepared to respond to it with any kind of dignity.
“How’ve you been, Paige?”
The backs of her eyes scalded with tears she’d have died before shedding. She swallowed hard.
How’ve you been, Paige?
Since I broke your heart, I mean.
Since you chased me down Main Street on a stolen golf cart.
How’ve you been, Paige old buddy, old pal.
“Fine,” she said, surprised and relieved by how calm she sounded. “I’ve been just fine. Busy. How about you?”
There. The ball was in his court.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Austin had turned his head in her direction, and he was watching her.
“Has it really been ten years?”
“Over that,” Paige said, very quietly. A month after their break up, Austin’s parents had been killed in that terrible accident. She’d wanted so much to go to him, offer her condolences, ask if there was anything she could do to help.
Alas, he wasn’t the only one with too much pride.
“I went to the funeral,” she said. A joint service had been held for Jim and Sally McKettrick, and there had been so many mourners, they couldn’t all fit into the church. People had stood in the yard and on the sidewalk and even in the street, just to be there.
He didn’t ask which funeral, though they often turned up at the same ones, both of them raised in or near Blue River like they had been.
“I know,” Austin said, very quietly. “I saw you.”
Austin had attended Paige’s father’s services, too, along with both his brothers. He hadn’t spoken to her then, but it had helped a little, just knowing he was nearby, that he’d cared enough to put in an appearance. She’d been too distracted by grief, that one day, to smart over the loss of her first love.
There had been plenty of other days to cry over Austin McKettrick, and many a dark night as well.
They passed the oil wells, long since capped though there was still plenty of black gold under the Silver Spur, according to the experts. They drove by cattle grazing on good McKettrick grass, and there was so much Paige wanted to say.
In the end, though, she either had too much good sense—or too little courage—to put any of her emotions into words.