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The Maverick Cowboy

By:Kate Pearce



Chapter One

Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, California

Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center





"Holy shit!"

The sight of a one-hundred-and-thirty-pound Marine flailing around like a chicken-a Marine Blue Morgan was tethered to on the side of a sheer cliff face-was not good. With a yell, the idiot lost his grip, and his booted feet scrabbled for purchase, narrowly missing Blue's head. The only thing keeping them from plummeting to the bottom of the canyon was the steel pin driven into the rock. It still meant Fielding swung out on his rope like a pendulum, jerking his unfortunate instructor up to meet him.

Blue barely had time to brace himself before he smashed into the other man. His head did a weird flick-flack and then mercifully everything went black.

* * *

"Gunny? You okay?"

Blue opened one eye and saw two versions of Mel, his fellow instructor, dancing against the bright Californian sky. He winced and retreated back into the darkness.

"Gunnery Sergeant Morgan?"

"Yeah." He managed to croak. "Is Fielding okay?"

"He's fine. Blubbing like a baby, but nothing broken. You took the hit for him."

"Tell me about it." Blue attempted to roll onto his side and broke out into a sweat as nausea engulfed him.

"Take it easy. The corpsman's coming." Mel patted Blue's shoulder. "I got you down. You two were unconscious for a while and swinging back and forth like a brace of pheasant."

"Funny," Blue muttered. "It wasn't Fielding's fault. He startled some kind of bird."

"He still panicked, though."

"Which is why this is called Basic Cliff Assault Training, so he'll learn not to do it somewhere important."

A shadow came over his other side and someone touched his shoulder. The smell of antiseptic swept over Blue, making him shudder.

"It's Ives. Do you know where you are?"

"Still in the Marines?"

Ives chuckled. "Specifically at this moment."

"Flat on my back with the headache from hell."

"What's your name and rank?"

"Gunnery Sergeant Morgan."

"What day is it?"

"Tuesday."

"Good. I'm going to check you over and take you back to the hospital, okay?" 

Hospital.

Blue had seen quite enough of them to last a lifetime. He only had six months left in the military. He'd hoped to see it out peacefully in his home state. This was his last training course. He'd managed to complete his final deployment in the sandbox, without a scratch, and now this.

Sometimes life sucked.

Ives placed a collar around his neck and Blue was gently lifted onto a board. He assumed the other six guys who had been climbing with their group had already been taken back to base. He was loaded into a vehicle and Ives got in behind him. Two others followed and the doors were shut.

Blue tried to relax, but the pain behind his eyes kept growing.

"Sorry, Gunny."

That was definitely Fielding, the little shit. Blue didn't have the ability to reply as his head started to pound and he literally saw stars. He set his jaw, aware that if he puked he was strapped to a board and couldn't even turn his head. He'd been in far worse situations than this. There was nothing left to do but hang on and hang in there.

* * *

"Concussion, whiplash, two broken ribs, and a black eye." The doc shook his head. "The newbie boot got a little graze on his widdle nose when he collided with your helmet."

"Figures," Blue muttered. "When can I leave?"

"You'll need to stay overnight so we can check on that concussion. You've had a couple in the last few years, so we've got to be extra careful. We'll see how you're feeling in the morning, okay?"

The doc was way too cheerful and loud for Blue's liking, but that might be his headache talking. Pretty much everything was too much at this point.

"Can I sit up?"

"In an hour or so we'll raise the head of the bed."

"Do I have to keep the collar on?"

"For a couple of weeks minimum. We called your grandmother."

"God, no," Blue groaned.

"She says to give you her love, and she'll see you soon. Command are working on a security pass for her."

"Great."

The thought of Ruth descending on him was half-comforting and half-terrifying. She'd never been one to let her grandkids sleep in and was highly suspicious of any attempt to get out of chores. On the other hand, if you were really hurt she would coddle you like a newborn calf...

Blue drifted off to sleep again, only to be woken up by a nurse because-concussion. He'd been there before and wasn't looking forward to a night filled with fitful sleep and wake-up calls. He longed for the peace and quiet of his bed at the ranch where the only sounds were the livestock, his grandma's TV, and his brother and January getting too loud in their bedroom.

He could do without the last one. But Chase only grinned when Blue reminded him to keep it down and suggested he was jealous. Blue thought about that. Was he jealous that Chase had found the right woman?

Nah.

He liked his life just as it was. He was in control, and no one was ever going to take that away from him. Twelve years in the Marines had made him a man to be reckoned with. It hadn't been easy. When he'd enlisted he'd been something of a hothead, and soon learned that didn't work in the Corps. They'd knocked him into shape and taught him everything he needed to know about how to survive.

But he had a new purpose now-to save Morgan Ranch and make it profitable again. Ruth and Chase were relying on him, and he was looking forward to the challenge.

* * *

"Blue, darling?"

The smell of apples and cinnamon drifted over him and he opened his eyes to see his grandmother sitting beside his bed. The lights were still too bright and it was now dusk outside.



       
         
       
        

"Ruth. You smell like pie."

"That's because I was making them when the call came through."

The nurse raised his bed so he could see his grandma's worried face. She had the same blue eyes as him and Chase, and her lined skin was baked brown by the harsh sun. She barely topped five feet, but she was still formidable.

"You look terrible, BB."

"Thanks."

She patted his hand. "What were you doing dangling off a cliff? Didn't I teach you not to do stupid stuff? I would've thought the military would have drummed that into you by now."

Jardin, his nurse, gave a snort of laughter and winked at him as she arranged his pillows.

"It's my job, Ruth. I was trying to teach some idiot how to climb."

"Well, stop doing it."

Blue raised an eyebrow, and even that hurt. "I can't just stop when I feel like it-although I'm pretty much done here anyway."

"Why?" Her sharp gaze moved over him. "Is there something they didn't tell me?"

"Nope, I'm good. It was my last training exercise."

A voice came from the bottom of the bed. "Mrs. Morgan? I'm Blue's physician. He's going to be just fine, but he will be on light duty. Best guess, his command will probably just put him behind a desk until he separates."

"Might as well shoot me now," Blue groaned.

"Can I take him home?" Ruth asked.

"Not yet. We have to keep him here because of the concussion, but I'm sure he'll be able to come visit you soon. It's nice that you're so close."

Ruth sighed. "Well, that's a pity. I brought Chase's big truck so I could put him in the back."

Blue tensed. "Wait a minute. You didn't drive that monster all the way up here, did you?"

She fixed him with a quelling look. "I'm quite capable of driving anything I want, young man. I brought January with me. She's waiting in the truck."

"Okay, then." Blue subsided back onto the pillow, which suddenly seemed very welcoming. Holding his head up was hard work. "I don't suppose you brought some of that pie?"

"There's a hamper beside your bed with three different kinds of pie in it. I knew you'd be asking." She stood up and gently kissed his forehead. "Now you take care of yourself, BB, and no more getting into trouble, you hear me?"

"Yes, Grandma," Blue murmured as she smoothed a hand through his short hair as if he was five again. "Tell January to drive carefully."

She kissed him one last time and then went off chatting to his doctor. He closed his eyes and heard a scraping noise, which brought him instantly alert. 

"What are you doing with my pies, Jardin?"

The nurse patted his knee. "I'm just going to put them in a safe place until you are allowed to eat solid food."

"Like the staff refrigerator?" He snorted. "They're fine right there."

"Sorry, the cooler's a fire hazard sticking out like that. Don't worry, I'll save you a piece."

He already knew that Ruth would've brought enough pie to feed fifty, so he didn't really mind the hijack.

"Peach," he murmured as he started to fall asleep again. "That's my favorite."

"You've got it." Jardin's voice faded and he let himself fall into the blackness.

* * *

"Well, this isn't good."

Blue rubbed his aching temple and studied his desk, which in his five-day absence had acquired about ten two-foot-high stacks of paper. He'd been released from the hospital, his ribs were taped up, and it hurt when he breathed too hard. His black eye was determined to capture every color of the rainbow, and he had at least another week in the neck brace. He was going to ditch that sucker as soon as no one was around to see him do it.

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