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THE ONLY HOME HE'S EVER KNOWN HAS BEEN WILLED TO A STRANGER by Jean BrashearI loosely based Morning Star on a real town called Rising Star, Texas, and the cemetery in the story is verymuch like the one I visited there. Maddie was such fun to write, so irrepressible and with such an open heart—and who better to open up the wounded heart of swoon-y, sexy cowboy Boone? Here’s an excerpt:

Sitting in the kitchen of the place that had once been home, Boone Gallagher expected to hear his father’s booming voice, unable to imagine anything bringing Sam Gallagher down. Sam had fought land and weather and lack of money to wrangle a living from this harsh country. Boone still couldn’t believe that his father was gone.

Or that it was forever too late to heal the breach.

A cup of coffee he didn’t need steamed on the scarred maple tabletop. He’d done his homework here all those years ago, listening to his mother hum church hymns while she worked, back in those golden days when this house had still been a home. So many years gone. So much loss. Exhausted by more than a day of travel from Asia to Texas, memories knotted in his chest, Boone sagged in the creaking chair.

He shouldn’t drink this coffee. He should fall into bed and sleep around the clock, but he had to talk to Vondell first, had to find out if Sam had ever softened, ever regretted what he’d done.

“You look like something the cat dragged in,” Vondell drawled, in a voice sandpapered by years of cigarettes. Barely five feet and topped by frizzy red curls, Sam’s housekeeper had always ruled this place with equal parts of tyranny and affection. They all knew better than to tangle with her, but even she hadn’t been able to make Sam see what he was doing to all of them after Boone’s mother died.

“Thanks a lot.”

“Go to bed, Boone. It’ll all be here when you wake up.”

He scrubbed both hands over his face. “Did he know it was coming, Vondell? And he still wouldn’t send for me?”

For a moment, her hand hovered as if to touch his hair. “Boone, I wish…”

Vondell seemed troubled, glancing away toward the window over the ancient porcelain sink. Suddenly she came to attention, her gaze caught by something outside. “Would you look at that?”

Whatever Vondell saw, Boone couldn’t imagine anything on Sam’s ranch that could be worth having to rise to look at right now.

Then it struck him with the force of a hammer blow that it wasn’t Sam’s ranch anymore. It was his ranch, his and Mitch’s—that is, if he could ever find his brother and coax him back. Boone had found Mitch’s whereabouts several years ago before leaving on the mission that had ended his military career. Mitch’s trail had gone cold before Boone had gotten back on his feet. Then he’d met Helen and started down the road to disaster.

Too many years, too much misery. Boone had been fourteen, Mitch sixteen when their lives blew apart. Sam had roared out blame and hatred, lashed out in unreasoning, raging grief. It had been the beginning of the end the day he drove Mitch away.

“Boone, she’s gonna get herself hurt.”

“One of the cows or a mare?”

“Neither. A woman.”

A woman? Last he knew, Vondell was the only woman on this place. He rose and crossed to the window, the flash of reds and purples snagging his eye.

It was a woman, all right, one like he’d never seen around here. Her slip of a dress sparkled bright with gypsy flair. She was out in knee-high weeds in sandals, for Pete’s sake, risking chiggers and ticks, never mind that a mama cow stamped restlessly only feet away from the woman reaching through the fence toward the cow’s calf.

And right now that woman was headed straight for trouble.

“What the—” Boone turned to Vondell. “Who is she?”

“I don’t know.” Vondell shrugged and frowned. “I didn’t hear anyone drive up.”

Boone crossed the kitchen.

“Wait, maybe—Boone, there’s something I should—”

“No time now. I’ll be back in a minute.” He was already heading out the screen door toward the small pasture by the barns.

Long strides brought him close enough to see a very shapely backside as the woman started climbing the pipe fence headed toward the calf, oblivious to her danger.

“Get away from that calf,” he shouted.

But she didn’t seem to hear him over the bawling.

Boone broke into a run as she neared the top. “Don’t go near that calf!”

She jerked around at the sound of his voice, losing her balance and tumbling inside the pasture. Boone closed the distance and vaulted the fence. He landed beside her as she scrambled to her feet, scooping her up and using his body to shield her. Half-shoving, half-carrying, he got her over the fence and followed with only seconds to spare.

Roaring her outrage, the cow hit the fence. The metal clanged and shuddered.

The woman in his arms shivered, the color draining from her face. Slender fingers clutched his biceps.

Her head just reached his chin. Over the adrenaline roaring through his system, Boone registered soft, tempting curves that felt much too good. “Are you all right?”

Eyes wide, the woman looked over at the cow now sniffing at her calf. Then she glanced sideways at Boone and did the damnedest thing.

She smiled.

Here Boone was, still trying to get his heart to slow down, and the crazy woman…smiled. Her eyes sparkled, her generous lips curved as though she had no clue how close she’d come. “My first day in Texas and already an adventure.”

He lost it.

“Damn it, lady—don’t you have a lick of sense? You don’t ever get between a cow and her calf unless you’re itching to get hurt.” His hands tight around her slender shoulders, Boone quelled the urge to shake her.

“I was only trying to help the baby.” Her chin went up in the air, and her eyes sparked. “How was I supposed to know he belonged to one of them?”

Her voice was pure sex, low and throaty.

He bent to her, all but growling. “You don’t climb into pens with animals you don’t know. That cow weighs over a thousand pounds. She could crush you without even trying.”

She didn’t back up an inch. “I called for help, but no one answered. Only a total jerk would leave that poor thing to suffer.” Her tone went frosty. “You’ll have to excuse my inexperience. There aren’t many cattle in Manhattan.”

“You’re from New York.” An accusation, not a question.

“Most recently. I’ve lived all over.”

A city girl. Just like his wife, who had hated every second spent in this place. At least his wife hadn’t thrown herself into dangerous situations, though. Not here, anyway.

In the end, he’d still lost her, and the memory turned his voice sharp. This woman shouldn’t be here. He wanted to know why she was.

“Who are you? What are you doing on my ranch?”

Gray eyes went wary, studying him for a long moment that made Boone’s spine tingle with unease. Fringed with thick dark lashes, a striking black ring around the irises, her eyes softened.

“Are you Boone or Mitch?”

He stared at her. “I’m Boone,” he replied, frowning. “How do you know my name?”

She stuck out one slender hand to shake his, her eyes still soft. Too soft. Almost like an apology. “I’m Maddie Collins. Your father mentioned you in his letter.”

He forgot the extended hand. “What letter?” Boone had only gotten a telegram, and that only after Sam was dead and buried.

“You didn’t—?” Her eyes darted to the side, looking toward the house. “He didn’t…?”

“Didn’t what?” His stomach clenched. “Why are you here?”

The woman named Maddie swallowed, then straightened, shaking her dark brown hair back over her shoulders as if preparing herself. In the sunlight, it glowed hints of red like the sky’s warning of storms to come.

Then her next words wiped out all thoughts of silky dark hair and husky voices.

“Your father left the house to me.”

“He…what?” But even as he waited for her reply, he believed her, this stranger in too-bright gypsy colors who didn’t belong here. He’d been crazy to hope that anything might have changed between him and his father, that Sam had regretted abandoning his sons.

“I’m sorry. I—I thought you would already know.”

Her regrets didn’t help. At that moment, he knew only one thing. He wasn’t through losing things that mattered. He’d been a fool to think otherwise.

Even in death, the man who’d been barely a father still denied him the only place he’d ever thought of as home.

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