Authors: Darlene Panzera
This time Ryan gave a start. “But . . .
you’ve always wanted the big-city career. Is running a guest ranch in Fox Creek going to be enough for you?”
Bree shrugged. “For now.”
“So you’d leave here, if offered another dream job?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Why all the questions?”
Ryan grinned. “Just trying to figure you out, Bree, the same way you’re trying to do to me.”
“Fair enough,” she said, lifting
her chin. “But I think that’s enough information for one day, don’t you?”
“Fair enough,” Ryan agreed, and pointed to the mare’s stall. “If you don’t want to talk, how about you try that
technique with the filly one more time?”
Bree’s expression froze, and as Ryan watched her attempt—
to connect with the horses again and again he realized she’d never be able to train his
aunt’s filly if her heart wasn’t in it. Animals picked up on body language and emotion better than most humans, and her distant demeanor was making the mare nervous, which in turn made the filly turn tail and run. As a horse trainer, she must
that, so what was stopping her?
She had to
to establish a relationship.
Ryan heard the filly let out another high-pitched squeal and made
up his mind to help. He might not be able to get close to the horses, but he could get close to Bree.
And although he knew there might be some risk involved, he was
to show her the benefits of opening her heart up to someone again.
and Nadine around the guest cabins, her mind not on training the new recruits, but on her training session with the filly in Ryan’s stable. What if she’d lost her touch? Morning Glory had wanted to play games, so she’d gone along with it, hoping the foal would think she was fun. But in the end she and the filly still hadn’t established a bond of
Worse, Ryan had given her a look she’d often seen on her father’s face. A look that said
didn’t trust her either, and that he was seriously worried about her ability to train.
But she wouldn’t give up. She
to give up. Next time she went over to the Tanners’ Triple T ranch she’d win the filly’s approval.
And Ryan’s, too.
Shocked by her own thoughts, she snapped out
of her reverie.
“Are you okay, Ms. Collins?” Nora asked with concern. “Because you just put the bath towels in the refrigerator and then—”
“Your whole face just turned red,” Nadine finished. “We usually keep our bath towels in a cabinet, but if you want us to place them in the refrigerator, we will.”
Bree laughed at her own foolishness, then opened the fridge and retrieved the fluffy,
terry cloth stack. “No. Sorry, I guess I wasn’t paying attention. I’ll need you to stock all twenty-four cabins with towels—and please place them in the hall closet.”
“Don’t worry, Ms. Collins,” Nora said. “You can count on us to—”
“Make the beds, remove the trash, and clean out the fireplace before each guest arrives,” Nadine said cheerfully.
“The fireplaces don’t need cleaning,”
Bree told her. “They use gas. My mother thought they’d be more efficient and still add rustic charm.” Her gaze swept past the natural stone mantel and the snarling grizzly bear head mounted on the pine wall, to the green curtains, and lastly to the pinecone patterned bedspread. “Make sure you leave a hard peppermint candy on each pillow and—”
“Will you look at that,” one twin exclaimed, opening
the cabin door and dropping her bundle of towels on the dusty front porch.
“Nora!” Bree pointed. “Look what you’ve done. Those will all have to be rewashed.”
“Sorry.” The ponytailed teen’s tone was filled with remorse. “Guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Me neither,” said the other. “Because she’s not Nora, I am. And
. Look outside! Big thumbs-up for the old guy in the brown chaps!”
Bree looked out the door just in time to see her neighbor Mr. Owens punch one of her newly hired ranch hands in the face.
What was going on?
Bree ran through the open stretch between the cabins and barn and waved her hands for the men to stop. But they paid no attention. The ranch hand lunged forward, attempted to return the punch, and missed. Mr. Owens took another shot and . . . sent
the man flying.
“Told you I could knock you down backward,” Mr. Owens crowed, his face beaming with delight. He looked around. “Who’s next?
Bree turned her head to see who he was talking to and caught sight of Ryan walking up the dirt path.
“There’s no way I’d ever fight you,” Ryan told him.
Ryan Tanner looked especially nice today with his brown hair ruffling in the cool
spring breeze. Then there was the way he kept looking at her, as if he were studying her for the first time . . . and liked what he saw.
He helped the ranch hand off the ground and Bree noticed the way the man held his wrist protectively close to his side.
“Are you hurt?” Bree demanded.
The ranch hand winced. “I think I broke my arm when I fell.”
Bree turned on her neighbor. “How
dare you come over here and start a fight with my employees! Now look at him. Do you see what you did?”
“Hey, the guy didn’t believe I used to be a professional boxer,” Mr. Owens said, collecting a hat full of money off a nearby stump. “Bet me fifty bucks I couldn’t land him flat on his back.”
desperate for money?” she asked, unable to keep the anger out of her voice. “I
heard you didn’t have the bookings you wanted for this upcoming season, but I didn’t think you’d stoop to this!”
Her neighbor flinched, almost as if she had hit
“Owens, you better leave,” Ryan added. “Now.”
Mr. Owens gave Ryan a sharp glance, then pocketed his money and placed the hat on his head. “I’m going . . . straight to your father, Bree. He’ll want a word with you, after
he hears how you talk to your elders.”
“I’m sure it won’t be anything I haven’t heard before,” she assured him. Then she directed Nora and Nadine toward the other cabins, her injured employee to the main house for medical help, and gestured for Ryan to follow her to the staging area beside the stable.
“We’re down a ranch hand, so it’s just the three of you,” Bree said, glancing between
Ryan and the redheaded woman and short, plump man who waited for them.
She pointed toward the raised plank loading decks. “Okay. This is where the guests will mount the horses for trail rides and the mini-roundups. I’ll need you to lead the horses up to the deck and help the riders slide into the saddles.”
Ryan frowned. “Why don’t you just use mounting blocks?”
“Most of our guests
have never ridden before and it’s hard for some of them to swing their leg up over the horse—even from a mounting block. They think climbing down into the saddle from the raised deck is easier.”
“Wait a minute,” Ryan said, holding up a hand. “You didn’t tell me I’d be leading a bunch of
guests on these mini-roundups. I thought you’d require them to have at least
Bree shook her head. “Most are city slickers who just want to be a cowboy for the weekend. We help fulfill that fantasy.”
“So they don’t even know how to tack up a horse?” Ryan eyed her with disbelief. “How do you expect me to saddle
lead a dozen riders on a mini-roundup by myself in four hours?”
“You won’t,” Bree assured him. “The other ranch hands will help you.”
asked, taking her elbow and pulling her out of earshot of the others.
Bree glanced at the redhead, who was clipping a lead rope to the wrong end of a halter, and the round man trying to unsuccessfully throw a lasso around the wooden practice steer directly next to him.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Ryan said, keeping his voice low. “No way. I’m going to need you to go on the mini-roundups
Bree pulled away from him. “That’s not part of the deal.”
“Can’t stand to spend any more time with me than necessary?” His expression hardened and his tone turned bitter, as if she’d insulted him.
“It’s . . . it’s not you,” she said, retaking his arm.
She shook her head and confided in a whisper, “It’s the riding.”
“Because of Serenity?”
“Yes. I haven’t
ridden since I lost her. Just being near the stable makes me . . .”
“Nervous?” He nodded, as if he finally understood. “I thought you, of all people, knew that once you take a fall you need to get right back up in the saddle.”
“This is a different kind of fall,” she told him, and thumped the left side of her chest with her fist. “It’s the kind that hurts in here, you know?”
he said, his tone regretful. “I’ve taken a few of those falls myself.”
She gave his arm a squeeze. “Please, Ryan. Help us?”
He blew out his breath, was silent a long moment, and then gave her a direct look. “I need at least one more person to ride with me. Someone to help guests stay in formation when I go one way and the cattle go the other.”
“I can have Delaney ride with you,” Bree
promised. “And Luke can help the guests tack up.”
However, when she approached her brother later that evening, he flat out refused. “I’m the one in charge of obtaining new permits and running construction projects, remember?” he argued. “I need my cane to stand up and can’t lift a saddle with one hand.”
She’d seen him do the most amazing feats in the past and had no doubt Luke could lift
saddles if he wanted to. He was just giving her a hard time—like her father had done when he demanded to know why she had antagonized their next-door neighbor.
Convinced Delaney would put up the least resistance, she trudged into the stable where her sister divided up a bale of hay into flakes of hay for the horses’ evening feed.
“Why can’t you do it?” Delaney protested, once Bree
explained Ryan’s terms.
“Because . . . I’m still trying to sort out the financial records.”
“But I’m already taking care of all the horses,” Del said, her face weary. “You expect me to go on the weekend roundups, too? Who’s going to watch Meghan?”
“I will,” Bree offered.
“No offense, Bree, but what do you know about children? Have you had any experience with a two-year-old?”
“No,” she admitted, “not really. Maybe Ma or Grandma can watch her?”
“Ma’s busy catering to Dad, and Grandma is slower than she used to be and can’t keep up with Meghan’s energy. I don’t want her to get worn out.”
why I don’t want to ride anymore,” Bree pleaded.
Her sister tossed a flake into the stall of the horse next to her and said, “You know what they say—if
you take a fall, even if it’s an emotional one, the best way to heal is to get back up into the saddle ASAP.”
“I know, I know,” she said, recalling the same words from Ryan earlier. “But I just need a little more time, okay?”
“Promise you and I will go on a trail ride next week.”
Bree hesitated. “Not sure about next week, but . . . soon.”
Delaney gave her a pensive look and sighed.
“If Meghan stays with you while I ride, I want you both where I can see you. Sit up on the hillside above the corral and wave if she needs me.”
Bree smiled. “Does that mean you’ll do it?”
“Only until you get yourself back up in the saddle,” Del replied, “which better be quick. Oh, and one more thing.” Del shoved a square green flake of hay into her arms. “If I ride, you’re going to have
to help me feed. Starting
Bree nodded, delivered the flakes to the next four horses in line to receive their dinner, and thought she was actually doing okay . . .
Until she came face-to-face with the horse in Serenity’s stall.
AKE ANY PROGRESS
with Bree?” Josh asked, elbowing Ryan as he sat between him and Dean in the front seat of the ranch pickup.
Ryan elbowed his
brother back, making him yelp. “You should know better than to tease when you’re the one sitting in the middle. And no, the horses still need a lot of work.”
“I wasn’t asking about progress with the horses,” Josh countered.
Dean chuckled. “Ry, don’t listen to him. He’s just wishing he were in your shoes.”
“Bree is a single, horse-lovin’, true-hearted cowgirl,” Josh added.
gave him a sidelong look. “Or
“Still is,” Josh assured him. “Just give her time to readjust.”
Ryan swatted the rim of Josh’s hat down over his face to the bridge of his nose. “Are you thinking of going after her?”
Josh pushed his hat back up onto his head and laughed. “Not after how mad you got the last time I took her out.”
Ryan thought about how frustrated he’d been
after Josh had asked Bree to go to their high school prom and chuckled. “That was years ago. What’s past is past.”
Dean brought the vehicle to a jarring stop. “
Ryan set his jaw. His brothers continued to grin as they piled out of the truck after him. But his mind wasn’t on Bree or any other woman right now. He intended to finish repairing the irrigation pipes and focus on the day
of work in front of him.
The alarm in his brother’s voice made him turn. Dean stood in the field, Josh a few feet away.
this?” Dean asked, his voice low. He swept his arm around in a slow circle.
Ryan gazed at the delicate blades of six-inch-high timothy grass hay they’d been growing for the three dozen cattle they’d added to the herd that spring, and noticed
the plants were dying.
He frowned and knelt down to examine the grass around him. The ground was wet and coated with a faint white substance. Frost? The mornings in May could still be quite chilly but usually melted by midday. No, this wasn’t frost.
He ran his finger over a plant next to his boot and pulled off a slick, gritty residue. Raising it to his nose he glanced at his brothers,
who watched him, their eyes wide.
“No smell,” he informed them. Then he touched his finger to his lips. “Tastes like . . .” His mouth puckered and a fist full of dread punched him in the stomach.
He spat on the ground and noticed both Dean and Josh had dropped to their knees to investigate as well.
Oh, God, please . . . no.
” Dean met his gaze. “I better call Dad.”
As Dean whipped out his cell phone, Josh looked at Ryan and asked, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Ryan’s throat was so raw he could barely answer. “Not over an entire field.”
“We won’t be able to replant for another whole season!” Josh exploded.
“No.” Ryan’s chest tightened. “Probably not for several years.”
“How did this happen?”
Ryan glanced up at the sky. “Crop
duster. Must have sprayed salt water over everything during the night.”
Fifteen minutes later their father and brother Zach drove up in their father’s pickup and inspected the hay for themselves.
Ryan had never seen his father look so grim. His face had turned ashen, his jaw pulling the lines of his face into a tight-lipped scowl.
“Think it was an accident?” Zach asked. “Maybe the
road crew had planned to deice a couple of the higher roadways first thing this morning and missed their mark?”