Katie’s Hero

Katie's Hero

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Katherine Taylor Winslow, reigning queen of American romance and confirmed city girl, yearned for old–fashioned heroes — men who could put the fire of passion in a woman’s blood or the chill of fear in a man’s heart with no more than a look.

Cole Grayson had been called the Last Swashbuckler, rightful heir to Flynn’s sword and Gable’s grin, an eighteenth–century man in a twenty–first–century world. His name was box–office gold and the world was hungry for knowledge about him.

Why had Grayson had agreed to let her write his biography, when he’d steadfastly refused so many others? Maybe the idea of having the queen of romantic fiction write the life story of the king of romantic heroes appealed to his sense of humor.

Riding horses together across the Sierras, far from city’s comforts and distractions, Katherine discovered that America’s heart-throb was indeed a hero, despite his determination to convince her otherwise. She loved him for introducing her to the wild, and for reigniting her passion, but could she make him realize his own desire for her?

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Chapter 1

Katherine Taylor Winslow, reigning queen of American romance, wiped sweat from her forehead and stared in disbelief at the mud on her fingers.

If I survive this, she thought, I am going to commit murder.

At the top of her hit list would be the demented genius in the publicity department at Barton and Lord whose brilliant idea this was. Following closely would be Katie’s own agent, Sonya Wyatt, for going along with it. After that—well, after that it would have to be Cole Grayson himself, and that would present a problem. Even Katie had to concede that she couldn’t go and bump off the man who was possibly the last honest–to–goodness white–hat hero in America.

“Whoa, horse,” she ordered, and was so astonished when the beast she was riding obeyed her command that she was caught off balance and bumped an especially sensitive part of her anatomy on the saddle horn. She muttered, “Ouch!” then swore bitterly.

The man on the horse ahead of her turned to look back, and pulled up, grinning. “Ain’t much further now, ma’am,” he assured her in a friendly drawl. “I think they’re workin’ cattle at Blue Meadow today, right the other side of this ridge.”

Katie straightened herself gamely and bestowed a look of martyred dignity upon her guide. She had already discovered that he had a tendency to refer to any geographical formation smaller than the Continental Divide as a “ridge.”

An interesting fellow, her guide; he’d told her his name was Snake, but hadn’t explained why. He was a very thin man, who sat in his saddle in the same boneless slouch whether the horses were proceeding at a shamble, a bone–crunching trot, or a suicidal gallop. The part of his face not covered by a sweat–stained hat and a quarter–inch of beard stubble was leathery; the wisps of hair beneath the hat were the color of dust. His age? A well–preserved sixty or so, she guessed… then guessed again. In reality the man was probably not a day over twenty–five.

Katie sank deeper into gloom. This high–altitude California sun was undoubtedly doing to her skin what it had done to his, and she wished she’d yielded to Snake’s advice and worn a hat.

Oh, Katie—what have you gotten yourself into?

What was Katherine Taylor Winslow doing on a jug–headed, razor–backed buckskin cow horse, on her way to a High Sierra cattle drive? The K. T. Winslow, dedicated city person, whose idea of high western adventure was shopping on Rodeo Drive. Had all her carefully crafted poise and polish come only to this?

In the final analysis, of course, she knew perfectly well she had no one to blame but herself. Greed, that was what it boiled down to. Greed, pure and simple. Not for money—her poor tax man was probably having a heart attack over her last royalty statement at this very moment. No, Katie’s greed involved something more complex and infinitely more rare than money: Heroes.

Katie was a sucker for heroes; she invariably fell wildly in love with the ones she created for her books. There was, she acknowledged sadly, a dearth of heroes in the world these days. Oh, she knew real–life heroes came in all shapes and sizes; that the real heroes were the men who trudged off to work in the morning even when they didn’t feel like it, who got up without being asked when the baby cried at three in the morning.

Sure.

But she’d already been through all that, and had reached an age of nostalgic yearnings some people—not Katie!—insisted on calling “middle.” What she yearned for were the old–fashioned heroes, heroes who looked like heroes, acted like heroes. Where in this day and age were the heroes played by the Errol Flynns, the Clark Gables, the Gary Coopers? Men with dash and charm, high ideals and intestinal fortitude, men with smoldering eyes, arrogant smiles, strong bodies, and gentle hands, men who could put the fire of passion in a woman’s blood or the chill of fear in a man’s heart with no more than a look?

Heroes. Oh, yes, as K. T. Winslow she had created them by the dozen, all shapes, sizes, and colors, and she’d adored every single one of them. But she’d never in her life met a man she considered a genuine, flesh–and–blood hero. Presented with the chance to do so, she had found it irresistible.

Cole Grayson. He’d been called the Last Swashbuckler, rightful heir to Flynn’s sword and Gable’s grin, an eighteenth–century man in a twenty–first–century world. His name was box–office gold; he’d never made an unsuccessful movie. Small wonder. He chose his projects carefully, and with faultless timing, and between pictures retired to his mountaintop, leaving the world hungry for more and thirsty for knowledge about the enigma known as Cole Grayson.

Just who the real Cole Grayson was and what he was like were things the public—including Katie—had been wondering for years. Now, with any luck at all, Katie and the public were both going to find out. Heaven only knew why Grayson had agreed to let her write his biography, when he’d steadfastly refused so many other offers. Maybe he was simply tired of all the tabloid lies, half–truths, rumors, and wild speculations that had been postulated about him through the years. Maybe the idea of having the queen of romantic fiction write the life story of the king of romantic heroes appealed to some latent sense of humor in the man. Did even heaven know? Katie decided she couldn’t have cared less. He’d agreed to let her do it, and that was all that mattered.

This opportunity represented a lot more than a chance to interview a charismatic superstar, and she knew it. It was proof positive that she’d reached the top of the heap, something she still had trouble believing most of the time. It was hard to convince herself she really was K. T. Winslow, sophisticated, elegant world traveler and household name, when just six years ago she’d been plain Kate Winslow, newly divorced and terrified at beginning a new life, a new career. The twins had been starting high school, and all three of them had gone through adolescence together, facing the same giddy, exhilarating roller–coaster ride into an unknown full of wonderful possibilities and frightening pitfalls.

And they’d made it, all three of them. The twins were in college, and she… well, she’d already achieved a degree of success and independence that exceeded all the goals she’d set for herself. This project would be the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae of her life.

She shifted in the saddle, trying to stretch the knots out of her abused muscles, wincing anew at the sting of chafed flesh. It was all going to be worth it, she vowed, gritting her teeth. Every ache, every pain, every inconvenience.

She’d meet the man in hell itself, if those were his terms. Legends, she acknowledged, must be humored.

As she had feared, Snake’s “ridge ” was another mountain, every bit as steep as the other ninety–nine or so they’d traversed since leaving the trucks early that morning. And like all steep hills, what appeared to be its summit was a mirage that kept retreating, like the end of a rainbow.

Except that, unlike a rainbow’s end, with perseverance, one eventually does come to the top of a mountain. At the summit, Katie’s guide halted and pointed.

“There they are.”

Katie’s horse stopped, too, without any instructions from her. Without being consciously aware of it, her mind shifted into paragraph form, painting the scene spread out before her in descriptive prose.

It was a scene from a John Huston movie; a Charles Russell painting come to life: a sea of grass, dun–colored, sun–gilded, shimmering in heat waves, trampled and bruised beneath the hooves of wild–eyed cattle. Brown horses and brown men seemed as one, like centaurs; and over everything, like a golden mist rose a pall of dust…

Dear Lord, they still do this?

For one moment Katie wondered if it could be a scene staged just for her benefit.

But no—for all its primitive beauty, the activity in the meadow had the gritty, smelly aura of reality. As she followed her guide’s loose–jointed form down the slope, Katie could smell the stench of singed hair mixed with wood smoke, hear the bawling of the cattle, the slap of leather on leather, the jingle of spurs, the high yips and guttural cries of the working cowboys.

“Which one is Cole Grayson?” she asked Snake.

He gave her a sideways look. “Cain’t hardly miss him.” He made “cain’t” rhyme with “faint.” “He’s ridin’ that big black.”

Katie hardly heard him. She was watching one of the cowboys detach himself from the milling herd and gallop toward them, trailing his own dust cloud. Except for the fact that he was mounted on a tall black horse instead of a short brown one, he looked pretty much like everybody else. Until he got closer.

Oh, dear, Katie thought. How in the world do I reduce him to words on a piece of paper?

Of course she knew every bone, every line, every wrinkle in his famous face. She knew the color of his hair—brown—and of his eyes—hazel. She knew the shape of his smile, the set of his ears, and the fact that his nose had a slight hook. But she’d purposely tried not to describe him in words, even in her own mind. She’d wanted to meet him with her mind open, a blank page. Now she thought that might have been a mistake. Words were never going to capture whatever it was that made Cole Grayson so devastatingly attractive.

To her dismay, Katie discovered her heart was in full gallop. In contrast, the man she had ridden through hell to see seemed perfectly relaxed and at ease, leaning on the pommel of his saddle. He had halted a short distance off and was watching her approach from under the brim of a dusty gray hat, regarding her with the fiercely challenging stare of an annoyed eagle. She had to resist an impulse to lift her hand to her hair in an automatic gesture of feminine self–consciousness she’d thought she’d put far behind her. Instead she wiped her palm nervously on her thigh.

Cole Grayson’s eyes glowed and flared like live coals. They were, Katie realized, more topaz than hazel, and the closer she got to him the more he reminded her of an eagle. She felt vulnerable and unprotected, and glanced around, looking for her guide—some sort of buffer, or go–between. But the wretched man had deserted her; he’d dropped back and was sitting on his horse in a placid slouch, toying with the reins and leaving her to face the great Grayson all alone.

She took a deep, fortifying breath and told herself to grow up. She told herself he was only an actor, after all—a make–believe hero, and no more real than the ones she created with words. She told herself he was a man. Just a man.

Their horses were nose to nose when Cole Grayson finally spoke, in a voice like the crack of a bullwhip.

“Woman, where in the hell is your hat?”

Katie sat in shocked silence for a moment. But speechlessness was a condition she was rarely afflicted with, and never for long. Calm settled upon her. Gazing into those terrible eyes she tilted her head to one side and crisply rejoined, “Not a bad opening line—though I believe I’ve written better.”

Did she imagine the spark of surprise in the famous eyes? They flicked sideways to where Snake sat draped over his saddle like a pile of ancient rags. Snake only shrugged, firmly refusing responsibility for Katie’s bare–headedness.

Cole shook his head and muttered something under his breath. Katie caught the word “redhead.”

The temper usually associated with coloring like hers began to assert itself. It occurred to her that if she didn’t establish herself firmly on equal footing with this man right now, she never would, and if she didn’t, working with him would be impossible. So, in carefully austere tones, she said, “My hair is auburn, not red. And please don’t concern yourself about me. I do not burn or freckle.”

But then, why were her face, neck, and arms suddenly burning hot? Cole was giving what he could see of her skin a lazy but thorough once–over, and it was as if his eyes, and not the sun, had scorched where they’d touched her.

“It’s not your hide that worries me,” Cole drawled. “This high–altitude sun’ll turn your brains to mush, don’t you know that?”

Well, I guess that explains it. There was a logical reason after all for the way her heart was beating, for feeling so queasy and light–headed. Thank goodness it was only the altitude.

A smile was tugging at Cole’s lips. Katie caught the ghost of a familiar dimple. “Can’t have that happen, not if you’re going to be writing my life story. We’re gonna have to find you a hat.”

“That isn’t necessary,” Katie insisted, pulling herself as straight and tall in her saddle as her stiff muscles would allow. Damn the man—so what if he was famous? So, by God, was she. “I never,” she stated with finality, “wear hats.”

From Snake’s direction, off to her left somewhere, came a sound that might have been a snicker. Cole’s eyes zeroed in on hers with all the weight of his personality behind them. Katie braced herself as if meeting physical force, and managed to hold her own gaze steady. With her eyes locked in that golden tractor beam she never saw Cole signal his big black horse, but suddenly he was moving. Moving up alongside her own scrawny buckskin. Her knee brushed his thigh. Without letting go of her eyes he swept the dusty, sweaty hat from his own head and plunked it firmly onto hers.

“Now you do,” he said with a verbal economy worthy of Gary Cooper. And then, leaning closer, he added softly but with unassailable authority, “Around here, lady, you wear a hat. Or you turn around and go back where you came from. Your choice.”

He turned away then, releasing her so abruptly she felt as though the world had tilted.

Over his shoulder he said to Snake, “If she decides to stay, take her on to camp. Tell Birdie to tend to her.” Without another word, without even so much as a glance, a wave, or a “See you later,” he wheeled the black horse and headed back to the milling herd at an easy, graceful lope.

Katie realized her mouth was hanging open, and abruptly closed it. When her horse abruptly came to life and fell into step behind Snake’s, she had to clutch at the horn to keep from toppling out of the saddle.

Altitude, she told herself grimly, explaining away the wave of dizziness that had just come over her. Altitude, and sheer, unadulterated outrage. Just who the hell did he think he was. talking to her like… like—

Suddenly and right out loud, Katie laughed. Snake glanced back at her to see if she had lost her mind or finally succumbed to the high–altitude sun. Reassured, he grinned, shook his head, and shambled on.

Well, of course. Katie thought with satisfaction. The arrogance, the laser–beam eyes, the charisma so thick you could plow it—hero stuff, right out of the pages of one of her own books. Or the screenplay from one of Cole Grayson’s movies.

Perfect. Absolutely perfect.

Well… maybe. As her horse plodded patiently along, following Snake’s boneless form without any guidance from Katie, she felt her own sweat begin to mingle with Cole’s under the weight of his filthy hat, and she found herself frowning. It was occurring to her that the qualities that make a terrific make–believe romantic hero might be somewhat less appealing in a real, flesh–and–blood man.

** ** **

Cole Grayson, returning to the roundup minus his favorite hat, was smiling. He’d found the encounter with his proposed biographer unexpectedly stimulating. She certainly wasn’t what he’d expected. Though he wasn’t sure what he had expected. Hell, he was still wondering what had made him agree to the deal in the first place. His agent had caught him in a weak moment. He seemed to recall it had been right around March or April, so no doubt he’d been thinking about Mia. He usually thought about her quite a bit in the spring.

Well, he meant to go through with it—he’d never gone back on his word yet—but to be honest, he’d hoped that by making it tough for her… Oh, well. So Katherine Taylor Winslow had turned out to be tougher than he’d expected. She’d turned out to be quite a few things he hadn’t expected.

Older, for one thing—might even be close to his own age, though only someone who knew the little telltale things to look for would put her age at much past thirty. Better–looking, too; a lot prettier than the picture on the back cover of her books. Too tall and skinny for his own tastes, of course, but those studio black–and–whites hadn’t even hinted at that red—okay, auburn—hair, or the intelligence in those gray eyes. That was what surprised and pleased him the most. She was sharp, quick with a comeback, and, more important, she didn’t seem the least bit intimidated by him. Women usually tended to freeze up and become catatonic in his presence, or so sexy–flirty it made his teeth ache. It had been a long time since he’d had an attractive woman talk to him the way K. T. Winslow had just done.

He considered the possibility that she wasn’t susceptible to men at all, and then dismissed it. He had good instincts for things like that. And if he remembered her bio right, she was divorced and had a couple of kids.

On the fringes of the herd he reined in Diablo and turned to look back. Snake and the lady were disappearing into the timber at the far end of the meadow. Even from this distance Cole could see she was still wearing his hat. He grinned and raked his fingers through his hair, letting the breeze dry his sweat. Then, as a yearling calf made a break for freedom, he dug his heels into Diablo’s sides, shouted “Yah!” and took off in pursuit.

** ** **

Cole Grayson’s base camp was nestled on a slope overlooking a beautiful little jewel of a meadow. Unlike the big meadow where the roundup was being held, this one looked lush and green. It was dotted with lupines and sunflowers, and Katie could see flashes of blue sky reflected in the creek that wandered through it.

She and Snake came upon the campsite from above, halting at some corrals in the shelter of a stand of yellow pine. Smoke from a chimney at one end of a long, open–sided building with a tin roof drifted up to them, carrying with it the pungent aroma of chili and roasting meat. The smell made Katie feel nauseated.

“That’s the cookhouse,” Snake offered, pointing. “And over there’s the storehouse, and the cook’s cabin. Down below—see where it’s green?—that there’s the spring. Runs right on down into the creek.”

Katie listened politely, but all she wanted in the world was a drink of water and to get off that damn horse, not necessarily in that order. For the last half hour or so a whole herd of large animals had been galumphing around inside her skull, and her throat felt as if it had been glued shut.

“Ma’am, why don’t you go on down to the cookhouse? I’ll see to the horses.” Snake’s voice was unexpectedly kind. He had dismounted and was standing at Katie’s horse’s head, holding the bridle and watching her, waiting, presumably, for her to do likewise.

Katie stared back at him. Now that the moment had arrived for her to get off the wretched animal, she wasn’t sure she could. Her legs seemed to have conformed to the shape of the saddle. If she did somehow succeed in dismounting, she feared she might not be able to walk.

Snake chuckled and flashed a grin that cracked his leathery face in all directions. “Hang on there a minute—I gotcha.” He reached up to grip her waist in amazingly strong hands. Katie gave a surprised whoop and found herself standing on the ground.

Which for some reason seemed to be undulating beneath her feet, with a rhythm a lot like the walking gait of a horse. And then there was the kettle drummer—the one who was displaying such remarkable virtuosity inside her head. She groaned, and clutched at Snake’s wiry forearms.

“You okay, ma’am?” The cowboy’s voice sounded concerned.

Katie squinted at him. Something was wrong with her eyes—he seemed furry. Damn. She needed her glasses. Where in the devil were they? Oh, right—they were in her luggage. Where the devil was her luggage?

“Thirsty,” she muttered, frowning.

“Birdie’ll have something cold—probably got lemonade all made; she always does. She’ll give you some liniment, too, I reckon, if you ask her.” Snake turned her in the general direction of the camp and gave her an encouraging push, adding helpfully, “Just walk it off, ma’am. You’ll get used to it.” His chuckle followed her down the slope.

Katie had never considered herself vain, but she did admit to an overabundance of pride. And she was suddenly very, very glad that Cole Grayson wasn’t there to witness her painful progress down that hill. She could just imagine what she looked like. Every muscle in her body hurt, and with every step the stiff denim of her pants legs rubbed like sandpaper over the sore places on the insides of her knees. Her head was throbbing, she was nauseated, and she was thirstier than she could ever remember being in her life.

By the time she reached the cookhouse, the world had begun to darken ominously around the edges. In the doorway, she had to brace herself upright with one hand against the rough log frame. She stood blinking into the gloom, trying to focus on the scene before her. Hallucinating, she thought dismally. Figures.

This end of the shed was enclosed with the same corrugated tin that covered the roof; half filling the enclosed space was a cast iron cook stove the size of a concert–grand piano. And standing in front of the stove was the largest woman Katie had ever seen—not just fat, but tall, at least six feet, with forearms as big around as Katie’s thighs. At the moment, one of those massive appendages was raised aloft, holding a huge iron skillet like a tomahawk.

“Who’s that?” The voice was incongruously high–pitched.

No hallucination, then. Katie realized belatedly that she must be no more than an anonymous silhouette in the doorway, an unexpected and frightening intrusion. She took one step into the cook shed and ventured, “Are you B–Birdie?”

The frying pan came down an inch or so. “Who’s askin’?” The woman had a broad face, with the wide, flat cheekbones and slightly Asian eyes of a Native American. Her hair was salt–and–pepper gray; it crowned her head with a coronet of braids as thick as a man’s wrist.

Katie dragged Cole’s hat from her own head. “I’m Katherine Winslow. I’m here—”

“My Lord, it’s the writer!” The frying pan met the top of the cook stove with a clang that resounded through Katie’s head like a Chinese gong. Birdie began to move toward her, except to Katie it appeared as if the cook were slowly inflating, like a rubber life raft.

What in the world is the matter with my eyes?

In an effort to adjust her warped vision, Katie shook her head, but the motion only set off the kettle drummer again.

“You’re so tall I thought you was a man,” Birdie was explaining in her high, rapid voice. “Some strange man—in those Levis and that hat… You never know who might come walkin’ in these days, with all the crazy dirt bikers and ATV–ers around, tearing up the meadows. Hope I didn’t scare you, but with the men–folks gone all day, honey, I’d just as soon be too careful, know what I mean?”

Katie nodded. Birdie had taken her by the arm and was tugging her into the shed’s cool and wonderful dimness. “Come on—sit down here, honey. You must be worn out, comin’ here on horseback. Now, why you didn’t come in on the chopper along with the luggage—”

“Could I please have a drink of water?” Katie whispered, interrupting while she was still capable of speech. In another moment she was surely going to be sick. She’d never felt so awful.

“That’s Cole’s old hat!” Birdie squinted at it and then leaned over to peer into Katie’s face.

Katie gulped. “Yes. He gave it to me. I didn’t have one. He seemed to think—”

“You come up here on horseback without a hat?”

The cook’s hands suddenly encircled Katie’s head, one at the back to steady it, the other firmly upon her forehead. The one on her forehead felt nice and cool. “Honey, you’re burnin’ up!” Birdie snatched her hands back and stared at her, hands on hips. “You got sunstroke, that’s what—how you feelin’? Head ache?”

Katie nodded. “Like hell.”

“Uh–huh. And dizzy. I see it—your eyes don’t look good to me. Here, now—sit down.”

“Thirsty,” Katie said doggedly, licking her lips.

“Uh–huh… “Birdie had turned, and was bustling around the shed with amazing agility, considering her bulk. In another moment a cold, wet towel was pressing against Katie’s forehead. Another was draped over the back of her neck. A large plastic drinking glass was placed firmly in her hand, and she was being instructed: “Drink!”

She did, shamelessly gulping. When the glass was empty—Katie thought it may have contained lemonade, though she hadn’t tasted it—she took a deep breath and paused while she evaluated her body’s responses, and then reported, “I think I’m going to throw up.”

“No, you ain’t,” Birdie said flatly.

After further consideration Katie decided the cook was probably right; it was only the pounding in her head that made her stomach feel so queasy. All she wanted to do was go lie down somewhere, preferably someplace dark and quiet.

Because, for some reason, just to add to her torment, the world had suddenly become very noisy. It was filling up with yips and shouts and masculine laughter, and the unmistakable sound of horses. A great many horses.

“Oh, damn,” Birdie said. “There’s the men already! Honey, you better get to your tent and lie down.”

“Okay,” Katie mumbled obligingly; it sounded like a good idea to her. She stood up, and the wet towels landed with a plop on the hard dirt floor. “Where’s it?”

“Just over yonder.”

Katie squinted, trying to see where Birdie was pointing. Birdie’s voice had developed a peculiar echo.

“Can you make it, hon? I can’t take you myself, I’m gonna have twenty hungry cowboys in here in a minute. Where’s that damn Snake? He brought you in, didn’t he? Snake!”

The cook’s bellow ricocheted through Katie’s skull. Trying, without much success, to hold her head together, she stumbled toward the doorway. Just before she got there, it suddenly seemed like a very smart thing to do to sit herself down on the floor.