Choose Your Heart

Midwife Kerry Mackenzie wants to move on with her life. Her deceased husband's parents expect her to remain true to his memory, but at twenty-four, Kerry's too young to wear widow's weeds for the rest of her life. Eager to start fresh, she takes a job that requires her to move miles from home. But her independent spirit wavers when she's stranded along the way and a handsome cowboy comes to her rescue.

Ranch owner Damian Greer happens upon Kerry perched alongside her disabled car on an Amarillo highway and is instantly attracted to her. He comes from a family that moves quickly on matters of the heart, so when he observes her cool behavior during an emergency, he's pretty sure she's the woman for him.

But with Kerry determined to do things on her own, how can Damian convince her to abandon her plans and give them a chance?

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Kerry Mackenzie wiped sweat from her forehead then kicked the front passenger-side tire.

A flat.Goddammit!

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She batted away tears of frustration. This move had been difficult since she’d made the decision to accept the job in Albuquerque. Cody’s parents spent all of last night still trying to talk her out of her decision. Her former in-laws had even promised a new car to replace her clunker if she stayed in Tulsa. But she was determined. Tulsa held too many memories of her deceased husband, and no one seemed able to allow her to move on with her life.

A quick glance at her wristwatch confirmed only an hour or so of daylight. If she could get the few miles down the road to Amarillo, she could send a tow truck back for her car, and spend the night there. Although a modern woman perfectly capable of changing her own tire—thank you very much—the flat spare in her trunk was useless. Another oversight.

Her jaw tightened with determination. She would stick to her plan regardless of how many detours popped up. The time had arrived to start anew—new places, new friends, and her much coveted independence.

Kerry pulled out her overnight case and laptop, then slung the strap of her purse over her shoulder. After locking the car, she slid her cell phone from her pocket. Dead.

Wonderful.

Her groan mixed with the sound of a motor in the distance. She dropped her belongings at her feet, shaded her eyes from the setting sun, and peered into the expanse of highway. A red pickup grew from matchbox size to normal in less than a minute.

Should she wave him down, put her thumb out? Did people even do that anymore? Would she be taking a chance on being raped—or murdered?

Before her brain formed an answer to those questions, the truck swung around, pulled in behind her car, and braked. A slim cowboy in dusty jeans and boots jumped out and sauntered around the front of the truck.

“Got a problem, ma’am?”

His deep chocolate eyes twinkled with humor. Her stomach did a little dance, but she ignored it. Hot, good looking guys stopping for you on the highway could be dangerous. She had to remember that, and show confidence, forcefulness.

“Ah, yes actually. I have a flat tire.” She waved in the direction of the car. “And I’m afraid my spare is flat, too.”

He favored her with a slow, easy smile, and pushed the brim of his brown Stetson back with this thumb. “Not a smart way to travel.”

“I realize that. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.” She raised her chin and nodded at the highway. “Do you know how far it is to the nearest convenience store?” She gestured with her phone. “Dead.”

He took off his hat, ran his fingers through longish, wavy, dark blond hair, and resettled the Stetson on his head, tugging the brim over one eye. “I can give you a lift to the nearest place with a phone, but it’s not a convenience store.”

Kerry’s heart sped up. Was this where he helped her into his truck and helped himself to her body? She was no fool. Serial killers were often good looking and charming.

“There’s a honky tonk a few miles up the road.”

The cowboy’s voice was slow and easy. He rested his hands on his low slung belt, dragging her gaze from his face to the silver belt buckle, glistening with the last rays of the sun, right above… She snapped her head up in time to catch his grin.

He raised his eyebrows. “Well?”

When she hesitated, he stuck out a hand. “My name’s Damian Greer.” He opened the door of the truck with the other. “And I assure you, my mama raised me to be a gentleman. You have nothing to worry about.”

Don’t they always say that right before they reach for your neck?

Stiffening her shoulders, Kerry gathered her things, then brushed past him to enter the truck. “You’re right. I’m sure I won’t have anything to worry about.”

Damian settled himself behind the wheel, flicking her a glance. “Did you lock up your car?”

“Yes. It’s all taken care of.”

“One more thing,” he said as he shifted into gear.

“What’s that?” Kerry held her breath.

Is this when he tells me he’s on the way to rob a bank, and I’m going to drive the truck for his getaway? If I don’t cooperate, he’ll shoot me, and leave my sorry, dead ass for the buzzards?

“You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

She exhaled. Why in heaven’s name was she so suspicious of everyone?

“Kerry. Kerry Mackenzie.”

“Nice to meet you, Kerry Mackenzie.” He checked his side-view mirror, and then glanced at her. “Fasten your seat belt.”

Damian pulled away from the crippled blue Chevy tilted to one side on the shoulder of the road. He settled back in the seat and snuck a quick look at Kerry’s hand clenched on her lap. No ring on the third finger, but a paleness where a ring would’ve been. Recently divorced?

For as often as he rode this highway, he’d never run across a woman like her. Humidity had done a number on her short, red hair, turning it into a curly mop. Her hazel eyes and cute button nose with a scattering of freckles fascinated him. No skinny model’s body on his passenger. Her snug denim shorts and plaid, button-down shirt hugged curves he’d love to get his arms around. A combination of siren and adorable kitten. Did she pull her claws out when angry? Or passionate?

Whoa, slow down, boy. It’s only a ride to the nearest phone.

He chuckled. The nearest phone sat in his jeans pocket. Something about his ingenuous passenger brought out the protective mode in him, and made him want to make sure she got to a safe place. The wariness in her demeanor belied the bravado in her voice. Spending a little time with her was an added bonus. He glanced at the dashboard clock. Eight-twenty. She wouldn’t get a tow truck out here until morning, which opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities.

Damian reached over and flipped on the radio, catching the end of Reba’s latest release. Another hot redhead. He smiled. Must be fate after all.

“Where you headed?”

Kerry shifted in the seat to face him. “Albuquerque.”

“No kidding.” He raised his eyebrows. “I have some business there myself in a few days.”

“Really?”

She didn’t look like she believed him so he hurried on. “My family owns a ranch, and I have a trip scheduled to Albuquerque to meet with our feed supplier.” He moved his left elbow to rest on the open window, then switched the radio station to silence a very enthusiastic car commercial. “We’re having some problems with our cattle, and I want to go over their mixtures. I have a degree in Animal Science. What brings you to Albuquerque?”

She started at his quick change of subject. “Checking out condos. I recently got a job there.”

A slight upward movement of her lips hit him right in the gut.

“What kind of work do you do?” His gaze returned to her lap, where her hands had relaxed. But she still hugged the door like she was ready to jump ship.

“I’m a nurse and certified midwife.”

“Impressive.” His attention returned to the road, his fingers tapping out a song on the steering wheel. After a few minutes, he took a quick peek at his passenger. She’d tightened the hold on her purse, tension radiating from her body. He was getting too nosy, making her nervous. She was probably afraid he’d stalk her like some internet loon.

“Here we are.” Damian turned the wheel and swung into the parking lot of The Lonesome Steer Honky Tonk. As usual at this time of day, cars jammed the lot. Two girls dressed in short denim skirts and cowboy boots entered the building. Music blared from the old jukebox inside, fading as the door shut.

Situated a couple of miles outside Amarillo, the familiar, weathered wooden building supported a large neon star with a flashing steer riding away from it. Over the years, it had become his home away from home.

“This is the closest phone?” Her deep red brows drew together.

“Well, no.” He threw the gear shift into park, then tugged the cell from his pocket. “Actually, this is the closest phone.”

Kerry’s mouth dropped open. “Then why did you drive me all the way out here?”

He grinned. “My mama would tear me up if she knew I abandoned a pretty young lady on the side of the road to wait for a tow truck.”

Leaving her to chew on that, he hopped down, and strode around the truck to open her door. She was out before he reached her, clutching her purse to her side.

“Come on. I’ll buy you a drink, and then call Boz to arrange for him to come get your car. He’s the local mechanic, but you can’t count on him doing anything more than dropping it off at his shop tonight.”

Kerry sighed and shifted her laptop case. “In that case, I’ll need a motel room.”

He pulled the door open and waved her through. “No problem. We have plenty of those.”

The noise of conversation, laughter, and music hit Kerry as she stepped into the dimly-lit room. She blinked several times as her eyes adjusted to the lack of light. As shadows turned into objects, she noted a worn dance floor taking out a chunk of the room’s center where several couples shuffled along, doing the Two-Step. Well-used, square tables surrounded the area, and off in the corner, two cowboys shot a game of pool on one of three tables. A long bar ran the length of the back wall.

A freshly painted sign announced Open-Mike Nights on Sundays and Karaoke on Thursdays. Kerry gazed around the room, amazed at all the people in a bar on a Tuesday night.

Don’t they have work in the morning?

Damian placed his hand on her shoulder and directed her to a table for two against the wall. Her stomach clenched at his touch, but she quickly shook off her reaction, and studied the colorful sign on the far wall advertising the Rattlesnakes scheduled to play for your dancing enjoyment come Saturday evening. Kerry smiled. If this was the way the honky tonk looked on a Tuesday, she could well imagine Saturday night with a live band.

“Hi, Gus.” Damian nodded in the direction of the bar, but when Kerry turned, all she caught was the back of a man as he entered a door to his left.

“Would you like something to drink?” Damian leaned close to her ear to shout over Miranda Lambert wailing from the old jukebox in the corner.

The scent of after shave drifted toward her, and his soft breath on her cheek dried up her mouth. “Any kind of pop.”

“Are you hungry? They serve great burgers here.”

She shook her head.

He sat back and studied her. “Do you mind if I have a beer?”

“No. Not at all.” Why would she care if he had a beer? Was he being a gentleman, or was something sinister going on in his mind?

Damian shot her a breath-catching smile, then signaled to a waitress.

Despite Cody being dead a year now, this was the first time Kerry spent time alone with another man. She glanced around the packed room. Not really alone, of course, and not that it was a bad thing. At first, she had no desire to seek male company, and then when she realized how little she even knew about dating, it had just seemed easier to keep to herself.

A short, stocky woman approached the table. Kerry realized after she got close that the stockiness was actually pregnancy. A very almost-at-the-end pregnancy. Poor woman, to have to deal with all of this on her feet and being that far along. The midwife in Kerry kicked in, and she quickly eyeballed the woman’s condition. Her slow, lumbering movements spoke of considerable fatigue. With all the extra weight she had to have sore feet, and most likely an aching back. Probably, or hopefully, at the end of her shift.

“Hey, Damian. I can always count on your smile to cheer up my day.” The waitress leaned her palm on his shoulder and rubbed her lower back with her other hand. “What’ll ya have?”

“That’s why I come here, darlin’, to cheer you up.” He winked, and added, “One cola and a beer.”

“You got it, cowboy.”

She shuffled off—actually more like waddled away. Having worked in Labor and Delivery for a few years, Kerry felt a stir of sympathy for the woman. She should be off her feet and resting. But, Kerry knew as well as anyone, no bills got paid if you didn’t show up for work.

Couples drifted away from the dance floor as the song ended and their waitress returned with drinks. No one added more coins to the jukebox, and only the sound of the cue ball clacking and the hum of conversation filled the crowded room.

Damian took a swig of his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “There’s a motel a few miles down the road from here.”

“Great. Can you call about my car now?”

“Sure.” He plucked his cell phone from his shirt pocket and pushed a few buttons.

Her initial concern about riding with a stranger faded as she surveyed the bustling room. This minor bump in the road wouldn’t do anything to halt her plans. She’d budgeted for a three night stay, so whether she spent the first night here or in Albuquerque really made no difference.

Her gaze shifted to Damian. Even though nothing like Cody in build and coloring, something protective in this man brought warm memories of her husband, and felt comfortable. She could always count on Cody—or his parents—to handle things.

And that had been the problem.

Time to rely on herself.

His deep voice drifted over her as he spoke with the mechanic who apparently wasn’t being very helpful. Damian glanced at her and rolled his eyes. That didn’t appear very promising. How difficult could it be to fix a flat?

He dropped the cell phone on the table. “Just as I thought. Boz is already into his second six-pack. We can drop the keys off in the box outside his garage, and he’ll get the car in the morning.”

“Will it be all right out on the road all night?”

“No problem. I’ll call Glenn Major, a buddy of mine. He’s a cop, and on duty tonight. I’ll make sure he keeps an eye on it.”

She relaxed even further. He was friends with a cop.

Damian covered his ear as he spoke into the phone once again, then pushed a button to disconnect the call, tucking the cell into his pocket.

Kerry downed the rest of her drink. “Can I ask you to make one more call?” When he nodded, she continued. “I need a taxi to take me to the motel.”

Damian shook his head. “I’ll drive you.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to mess up any plans you might have had.”

“No plans. I spend most nights here.” He gestured to the ever increasing crowd.

She wrinkled her nose, her eyes skimming the boisterous room. “Sounds lonely.”

He flinched, making her wish she could take back the words.

Damian leaned in. “Can I ask a favor before we leave?”

Kerry tensed, her suspicions re-surfacing. Maybe she had been wrong about him after all. Was he looking for some type of ‘payment?’

He studied her, a slight tilt to his lips. “Dance with me?”

Kerry’s heart did a double thump. She could fall into those eyes and never come out. And that indecent smile did things to her stomach she hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

As the next song started up, he left his seat, then moved around the table and extended his hand. His upper body blocked the light, so he stood in shadow. But she could still see those eyes, challenging her. Why did she feel his request required some sort of major decision on her part? It was merely a dance.

Kerry mentally shook herself. “Sure.” If he made her uncomfortable, she’d thank him for his help, and ask the bartender to call a cab.

She placed her hand in his, then yanked it away, almost as if burned.

What the heck was that?

With shaky legs, she followed his lanky stride to the dance area. He reached back and took her hand once more, sending more heated sparks shooting up from their joined hands, landing like a small torch in her stomach.

Before she had a chance to catch her breath, he turned, took her into his arms, and her mouth dried up. The smell of man, leather, and his musky after shave drifted to her. His hands slid down to her waist, and rested comfortably there, leaving a trail of warmth. She moved her palms up his chest, then grasped his rock hard biceps. This more intimate touch fanned the embers in her stomach, spreading heat waves all the way to her fingers and toes.

He was taller than Cody. When she and her husband had danced, her forehead came to his lips. With Damian, the top of her head would fit right underneath his chin. He kept a decent space between them, which reassured her. In fact, she was amused to realize she felt the need to move closer. And she couldn’t stop staring into his eyes.

This is crazy. I just met the guy. I know nothing about him. He could have a wife and seven kids tucked away somewhere.

What the hell am I doing?

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