"Rumor has it, you and Lily McCabe have been on the outs with each other for the past eight years."
More like six, Gannon Montgomery corrected silently. Although it seemed longer since the two of them had shared a laugh. Or even a smile.
The relaxation he'd felt during the rare morning ride fading fast, he led his horse into the barn. "What's your point?" Gannon demanded.
Rex Carter stepped back. "The last thing Laramie, Texas, needs is a young female mayor."
Gannon could see how the once-popular good old boy opposite him could think that. He pulled off the saddle and removed the bridle, bit and reins. Hung them on the wall outside the stall. "Lily's not that young. Just a few years shy of me."
And, if memory served, incredibly sexy and smart, to boot.
Rex narrowed his gaze. "She's twenty-nine."
Gannon rubbed down the gelding, gave the horse plenty of water, then shut the stall door. He walked over to the sink at the rear of the barn to wash his hands. "Which, as it happens, is old enough for a lot of things. Including running for public office in Laramie County."
Rex slapped his Stetson against the leg of his custom Western suit. "She's an attorney, not a politician."
The more things changed in the rural Texas area he'd grown up in, the more they stayed the same. Gannon sure was glad he now resided in Fort Worth. "Well, tell that to all the people who voted for her," he retorted mildly.
As if recalling he'd been beaten in a landslide by the pretty and personable Lily McCabe, and forced to return to the real estate business his family owned, Rex scowled and ran a hand through his short, graying hair. "The point is, you're not the kind of 'celebrity judge' the committee had in mind for the First Annual Laramie, Texas, Chili Cook-Off and Festival. And Mayor McCabe shouldn't have asked you to do the honors."
Gannon strode out into the unseasonably warm February day. He admired the rugged scenery and let the sage-scented breeze roll over him. "Lily didn't have anything to do with my selection." The request had come from a friend of his mother's, who'd erroneously thought dragging Gannon back to join in the festivities would lead him to abandon his highprofile career and return home permanently.
"I agreed to do it because I figured it would be fun."
And maybe give me a chance to mend fences with Lily, at long last. Assuming I could get her to put our old disagreements aside. A pretty big if, given her stubbornness and the acrimoniousness of the words that had been exchanged.
Gannon turned his gaze away from the clear blue skies. "And I thought you were here to talk about the sale of my family's ranch."
Which was—Gannon admitted guiltily, looking at the neglected grounds around the house and barns—in pretty sad shape. Mostly because neither he nor his mother had had the time or inclination to put any work into the defunct cattle ranch since his dad had died five years prior.
Rex straightened, all savvy go-getter once again. "I've definitely developed a plan for the Triple M." He paused to look at Gannon, long and hard. "But to get you and your family top dollar, I'm going to need your full cooperation on every level."
Lily McCabe listened to her assistant, her decision made as soon as the name was uttered. There was no way she wanted this particular Blast From Her Past. Her hand tightened on the telephone receiver that was, like almost everything else in the town hall, many years out of date. "Tell him I'm too busy to see him, but thank him for stopping by."
"Tell him yourself," an achingly familiar male voice suggested from the open portal of her private office.
Lily's gaze lifted, and there he was. Gannon Montgomery. Big as life. Clad not in the elegant suit and tie she would have expected, but in a faded pair of jeans more suitable to his rodeo days, and a navy blue shirt that brought out his midnight eyes. His belt bore a championship buckle, and his brown leather boots were as comfortably worn as the Stetson he held against his thigh.
"Never mind." Lily set down the phone with a sigh.
Ignoring the sensual tilt to his firm masculine lips, she pushed back her chair and stood. Then, remaining behind her large mahogany desk, she propped her hands on her hips. And tried, without success, not to notice how good he still looked. Even with his thick, short dark brown hair all rumpled, and a sandpapery-rough hint of beard rimming his chiseled face. Realizing she'd been staring, Lily dropped her gaze and found herself in even more tantalizing territory. Shoulders broad enough to lean on. Muscular chest and taut abs, all just begging to be touched. Not that she ever would.
Not after everything they'd once said.
Lily's eyes shot upward, heat filling her face.
"How did you get past my secretary?" she demanded. Dimples appeared on either side of Gannon's rakish grin. He lifted a big square palm. "Good looks and charm. Same as always."
An unwelcome rush of excitement roaring through her veins, Lily watched Gannon shut the door behind him and stride toward her.
Doing her best to project an aura of professional cool, she lifted a chastising brow first at him and then at the closed door. "Is that really necessary?"
He dropped his hat on a chair, every bit as confident—and maddeningly chivalrous—as she recalled. "Given what I have to tell you, yes."
What was it about Texas men? she wondered. Always thinking the women in their life needed protecting, whether the women wanted that or not! She blew out a gusty breath and waited, with barely contained impatience, as Gannon roamed the Laramie mayor's office, taking in the photos of her four-year-old son on her desk, the many plaques and awards on the wall. He turned back to her, smelling of fresh air, soap and man. "First off, thanks for selecting me to be on the judges panel for Laramie's First Annual Chili CookOff and Festival."
Lily grimaced. "I had nothing to do with it. It was your mother and Miss Mim." The retired town librarian, who had known them all as kids. "She's chairwoman of the event. Although, for the record, we all knew you'd be in town before then, since your mother's newest statue is going to be unveiled in the town square day after tomorrow."
Dark brow furrowing, Gannon paused. "Have you previewed my mom's new artwork?"
She caught the undertone of worry in his low timbre. "No one in town has." She paused. "I'm guessing you haven't, either?"
Gannon shook his head. "My mother is keeping her sculpting studio under lock and key."
Lily knew the retired art teacher had only been selling her work for a few years now, but was looking to make a splash with the work the town had commissioned for the upcoming festival. "Is that usual?"
Lily told herself not to attach any particular significance to that. "I'm sure it will be amazing." He nodded tensely.
Deciding letting the situation get too personal could only lead to trouble, Lily pursed her lips. "Back to your invitation to judge."
Broad shoulders flexed beneath his blue cotton shirt. "You were out of the loop on that," he concluded with humor, not nearly as insulted by her derisive remark as she would've wished him to be. "So noted."
As was much else.
Figuring if he was going to give her the lazy once-over, she may as well do the same to him, Lily let her glance admire the strong masculine planes of his handsome face before dropping once again to the sinewy contours of his chest and flat washboard abs. Lower still, the denim cloaked his long masculine legs and.
With effort, she forced her attention back to his taunting gaze and took a deep breath to allay the slight tremble of her knees. Then, in a slightly strained voice, she admitted, "Although if it had been up to me, counselor
" Given their former rancor and how closely the chili cook-off would force them to work together.
"I would not have been your first choice to be the head judge and the grand marshal of the parade?" he concluded softly.
Lily lifted her chin. "Probably not."
He sauntered nearer, the warmth of his big body radiating outward. "You know, we could just call a truce."
Surmising he was about to hit on her, Lily rolled her eyes. "Or not."
He peered at her. "You sure you're a politician?" Hands flat on the paper-strewn surface of her desk, he leaned toward her. "'Cause most politicians I know are prone to copious displays of kissing up."
Or, in this case, just kissing.
Trying not to think about how long she had wanted to do that and somehow managed not to, Lily cleared her throat.
"So you said there was another reason you were here?" she prodded in a crisp, businesslike tone.
For both their sakes, she wanted to get this tête-à-tête over with as soon as possible.
"Right." Gannon pivoted away from her and went back to look at the photo of her and the current Texas governor, taken shortly after she had been sworn in.
He bypassed the hat taking up one of the upholstered chairs in front of her desk, and dropped lazily into the other. Then he stretched his long muscular legs out in front of him. "Rex Carter wants to oust you from your position as mayor."
Lily sent a glance heavenward, cursing all the unnecessary drama. "Tell me something I don't know," she replied, deadpan.
"He's serious about proving you unfit for office."
Trying not to think how much she loved Gannon's ruggedly chiseled features, as he stared at her with that look of worry on his handsome face, she sat down behind her desk and folded her hands in front of her. "And I'm serious about proving that I'm more than capable."
A note of disbelief crept into his voice. "You really don't care what Rex's plans are?"
Lily hesitated. She did and she didn't. "I can't govern effectively if I spend all my time worrying about what everyone else is doing."
"Even if the plan is to wreak as much havoc as possible on your weekend-long Valentine's Day fund-raiser?"
"Rex loves Laramie," she replied. "I think when it comes right down to it, he won't want to see the town embarrassed. Especially since his family still has a business here, and could very well stand to profit if the chili cook-off is a success."
Gannon paused. "I think you may be naive about him."
Anger stabbed her heart, quick and brutal.
"And I think," Lily responded just as candidly, rising yet again, "that is something you have said to me before."
Yes, Gannon thought unhappily, it was something he had said. And Lily had resented it so much she had ended their friendship. Although in that instance, too, he had turned out to be right.
A fact that had made her begrudge his innate protectiveness even more.
As she came around the desk toward him and then moved past him toward the door, he could see not much had changed.
Lily was still as gorgeous as ever, he noted, as he, too, got to his feet. Still liked to wear heels that made the most of her incredible showgirl legs. Her honey-blond waves tumbled just past her shoulders, with a swoop of long sexy bangs across her forehead. Standing half a foot shorter than him, at five foot nine, she was lithe and graceful, curvy in all the right places. A fact illustrated by the trim navy suit skirt and silky white shirt that adorned her delectable body.
"I said that with good reason, as it turned out," Gannon shot back before he could stop himself. Her ex had treated her—and the son she'd eventually had with him—like dirt.
"That's a matter of opinion," she reiterated tightly.
The phone on her desk buzzed. Once, then again.
Looking grateful for the interruption, Lily strode back to answer it. "Yes?" She listened, then cast a look at Gannon over her shoulder. Harrumphed loudly. "Did Mr. Montgomery pay you to say that?"
Say what? Gannon wondered.
"No, I guess not," Lily continued, miserably. She rubbed her temples. "And there are how many of them?"
Then she muttered something beneath her breath he couldn't quite catch but sensed was very unladylike. "No. For heaven's sake, don't have them wait in the lobby! Show them to the conference room down the hall from my office. Yes. Including him. Tell them I'll be right in. Yes. Yes!"
Lily hung up the phone.
Her hand was shaking.
Her face pale. Then red. Then pale again.
Seeing her so distressed, it was all Gannon could do not to wrap his arms around her and make everything okay. "Rex Carter?" he guessed.
Lily scoffed and ran a hand through her bangs, pushing them off her forehead. "Worse," she moaned. "My son's father."
"Bode Daniels." The star quarterback for the Dallas Gladiators football team.
Lily's shoulders sagged as she nodded miserably. "And his sports agent, PR rep, publicist and two lawyers."
That was quite an entourage. Gannon studied the expression on her face. "And you had no idea they were coming?"
"None." Lily paled again as outside in the corridor a collection of convivial voices rose and fell. Their footsteps faded.
"Do you need a lawyer?" Gannon asked, only halfjoking.
"I already have one. Liz Cartwright-Anderson."
Who was, Gannon reflected, also a mutual friend.
Lily reached for her suit jacket and slipped it on. "But Liz is on vacation with her family right now, at Padre Island." And she was the best Laramie County had to offer.
Desperation mingled with the worry in her long-lashed turquoise eyes.
It got to him—big-time.
With effort, he once again resisted the impulse to take her in his arms and smooth a hand through her hair. Anything to comfort her. "Want me to fill in for her? I'm a family-law attorney, too."
Lily looked tempted for a nanosecond, but then she shook her head. "No. I've got it." She paused, as if steeling herself emotionally for the battle ahead. "I trust you can see yourself out.?"
Gannon sighed. She'd made it clear a long time ago that she didn't want—or need—him. Probably never would. "Sure," he said, just as coolly. "And, Lily?"
Their eyes held. For a moment, something shimmered between them, lingered like a dust mote on the air, then disappeared altogether. "Good luck with that—whatever it is." He jerked his head in the direction the voices had gone.
She nodded. Her expression turbulent, she took off toward her meeting.
Gannon made it as far as the lobby in the town hall before the second thoughts set in. None of this was his problem. Lily'd articulated that numerous times. And yet
she was in trouble. And maybe her son, too. He could feel it in his gut.
He'd been brought up to never ever leave a lady in distress. That went double when an innocent little kid was involved.
He wasn't about to start now.