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Authors: Stacey Coverstone

Takin' The Reins

BOOK: Takin' The Reins
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TAKIN’ THE REINS

 

By

 

Stacey Coverstone

 

 

 

Copyright © 2013 by Stacey Coverstone

http://www.staceycoverstone.com

Cover Art © Sheri L. McGathy

Digital Layout by
www.formatting4U.com

 

This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

 

 

 

 

Dedication

 

To Dawn Simpsen, lifelong friend and horsewoman, and to Paul, my very own cowboy.

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Jordan Mackenzie drove under the paint-chipped ranch sign and through the gate and parked her Jeep Cherokee in front of a small adobe house. From behind dark sunglasses, she peered out the front window of her vehicle. As she took a quick look around the property, a sick feeling lodged in the pit of her stomach. The Lucky Seven Ranch appeared to have run out of luck years ago. Had she made a big mistake in coming here?

Shutting off the engine, she stepped out of the air conditioning and stretched her arms above her head. It had been a long drive from Colorado to New Mexico. She rolled her shoulders back and bent her petite five-foot-three frame from side to side to get the cricks out of her body. It was early afternoon and the Southwestern sun hung high and hot over the parched ground. Beads of perspiration immediately popped up on her fair forearms and face. Thank goodness she’d changed out of the jeans she’d first put on this morning and into shorts and a tank top. It felt like a furnace here in the desert.

She opened the car door again and rummaged through her purse for a hair band. Finding one, she tied her shoulder-length auburn hair into a ponytail and then rubbed an ache out of her neck. The drive had taken over eight hours, but she’d been so energized and excited that she’d driven it straight through, making only one quick stop for gas and snacks. She had fully expected to pull up to her great aunt Lydia’s house, unload her suitcases, and celebrate her good fortune before heading to town to take care of legal business. All that, however, would have to wait until she overcame her shock.

A lump stuck in her throat as she gazed around. First impressions meant everything to her.

At first glance, the ranch was disappointing. It had only been unoccupied for a couple of months, since the death of her aunt. She guessed Lydia had either been too busy with the horse rescue operation to keep up the place, or else appearances hadn’t mattered to the woman. The problem had not been lack of money. The lawyer had made that clear in the letter.

The house itself was charming, just as she’d imagined, but the sidewalk leading up to it was in pieces. On closer inspection, she noticed spider-thin cracks traveled across the exterior walls and its old roof was in need of repair. The yard around it was a foot tall in weeds, and the apple tree in front was in desperate need of pruning. A clothesline stood in the side yard and a big laundry sink was against the wall, which led her to guess there was no indoor washer or dryer.

What would the interior of the house look like? She’d find out soon enough. But first, she wanted to check out the rest of the property to see what she was up against.

Jordan strolled to the barn and slid open the creaky door. Relief flooded her bones as she walked up the center aisle to find the stalls seemed to be in good shape, even though they needed to be mucked out and cleaned of cobwebs. There were only a dozen or so bales of hay piled in the back, and they looked dry and moldy. They’d have to be removed. The barn could be cleaned up easily with a little hard work, she figured.

Peeking over a half door into the tack room, she spied leather saddles sitting on wooden saw horses, and bridles, bits, halters and lead ropes hanging from pegs on the wall. Feed buckets, a couple of water hoses, and some containers of horse treats sat on the floor, which was strewn with hay. This wasn’t so bad. Her spirits began to lift again.

Upon stepping back outside, she walked around to the rear of the barn and examined an old horse trailer parked there. It looked like it hadn’t hauled horses in a long time. She noted the rust and thought a good scrubbing and a new coat of paint would do wonders. Two of the tires were flat, but it looked to be sound.

Walking about fifty feet of pasture, she inspected the fence line and was thankful it didn’t seem to need repaired or replaced. When she stepped into the corral, it was as if she could hear the whinnies and snorts of horses running in circles and kicking up billows of dust. From what she’d learned from the lawyer, Lydia had run a horse sanctuary up until the time of her death. The ranch must have been something in its heyday. Now, nothing stirred except some lizards scurrying amidst the dry grass. The lack of activity and the quiet country setting caused it to feel eerily like a ghost ranch, not a lucky one.

Jordan walked to the back of the house and discovered a courtyard enclosed within a crumbling plaster wall. She opened the squeaky gate, entered, and spied the remnants of a spring garden, a large overgrown bush stuck in the corner, and gnarly vines covering an old grape arbor. A Mexican sandstone fountain stood in the middle of the courtyard. She imagined it had once been the magnificent center of attraction in the garden, but it was now cracked and stained. She wondered when it had last flowed.

Her gaze flew beyond the crumbling wall out to the desert and the Sacramento Mountains. Scrub dotted the dry ground, as did various kinds of cacti, some with yellow and pink blooms. The afternoon light shone just right upon the mountains to cast a coppery gold glow onto the rugged peaks. The splendor of the view took her breath away.

A tap on her shoulder startled her. Gasping and spinning, she jumped back and met the gaze of a friendly-looking cowboy. A million miles away in thought, she hadn’t heard a vehicle come up the driveway.

Flipping off her shades, Jordan scanned the man and guessed him to be in his late forties. His tanned face was ruggedly handsome, and he was at least six feet tall. He wore a plaid shirt with a western yoke and pearl snap buttons. His boots looked well broken in, and a cowboy hat with a wide brim shaded his bright green eyes. She liked his quick, warm smile.

“Didn’t mean to frighten you,” he drawled. “I saw you pass my ranch. It’s about a mile back that way.” He hooked his thumb in the direction he was speaking of. “My place is the Circle B.”

She’d noticed the Circle B Ranch as she’d driven by. It was a large spread with fencing and barns that looked to be in pristine condition. The house, in particular, had caught her attention as she’d passed. It was an attractive territorial style home with a green tin roof, a grassy front yard, and classic desert landscaping.

“I figured you were Lydia’s niece,” he said. “Been expecting you any day now.”

“You’ve been expecting me?” Jordan’s mouth dropped open.

He nodded. “Before Lydia passed, she mentioned a niece. Said you’d be the new owner of the Lucky Seven.” He extended his hand. “My name’s Brannigan. Wyatt Brannigan. I’m your neighbor.”

Jordan pumped his hand up and down and felt her accelerated pulse slow. “Jordan Mackenzie. Nice to meet you.”

“Same here.” He held her hand for a moment longer than she expected. When she cleared her throat, he grinned and let her palm slide out of his large hand. He rubbed his chin with thoughtfulness. “I’d imagine you’re more than a bit shocked to find your inheritance so run down.”

How did he know the ranch was her inheritance? She almost asked and then decided to let it pass. After all, he’d been Lydia’s neighbor. More than likely he knew more about Lydia than she did.

“I am,” she replied, “but I suppose it could be worse. I think the outside just needs some TLC. I’m sure the inside is in better shape.”

“You haven’t peeked in yet?”

“No. That’s next on the agenda.”

“Don’t get your hopes up there, either,” he chuckled. “I’m afraid Lydia wasn’t much of a housekeeper. It’s difficult to run a ranch alone. There are long hours and hard work involved.” He slid a querying glance at her. “Lydia preferred spending her time with the animals, as opposed to keeping house.”

“I can understand that, I guess,” Jordan said. Actually, she had no idea how much work it took to run a ranch. She fisted her hands on her hips and looked around again and sighed. Why did she think she’d be up to such a task? She was a city girl. “I’ve never been around horses,” she explained, “but I always wanted a pet, growing up. I can see how animals might take priority.” She made small talk to be polite. The cowboy’s eyes slid up and down her body.

“Lydia and I were neighbors for years. She was a proud woman. A good woman. I’ll miss her. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Jordan didn’t feel it necessary to explain at that moment how she’d only met her aunt once in her life and didn’t know anything about her except what the lawyer had written in his letter.

When Mr. Brannigan tipped his hat back, she caught the full effect of his sparkling green eyes. Grinning, his gaze roamed over her curves—starting at her legs, lingering on her chest, and finally moving back to her face. He was checking her out, and not hiding the fact!

She prided herself on her intuitions about people. Sizing him up quickly, it was easy to see the man was loaded with confidence and seemed pretty laid back and easygoing. Those were attractive qualities. She liked the way he stood with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets, completely comfortable in his surroundings, looking like he had all the time in the world to kill. She also gleaned more than a hint of mischief behind those friendly eyes and that crooked smile. The intensity of his stare unnerved her while making her all the more curious.

“She was past eighty, you know,” he said.

“I wasn’t sure of her exact age, but I knew she was up there.”

He nodded again. “She told me once that the only way anyone would get her off this ranch was by way of a pine box. She loved it here.”

“I can see why. The desert is beautiful.” She pushed the rickety gate open and held it for him to step through. Although he’d been nothing but pleasant, she had things to do. He lagged behind as she led the way to the front of the house and walked toward the driveway. As she strolled, she sensed his eyes boring a hole in her backside. When she turned quickly, she caught him staring, but he didn’t seem bothered. In fact, his mouth split into a wide grin! Jordan felt her cheeks flame.

“I’m a little tired from my trip and anxious to see the inside of the house,” she said. “I drove from Colorado today. I hope you understand.” She didn’t want to be rude, but the day was slipping away, and there was business to attend to.

“Oh. Sure thing.” He held his calloused hand out again and she shook it firmly.

“Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Brannigan. It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope we can talk again soon.” She tucked a strand of flyaway hair behind her ear and shifted from one foot to the other, waiting for him to leave.

“The pleasure’s been mine, Jordan.” He touched the brim of his hat and strode toward his pickup. Slowing his pace, he turned before he reached the truck and looked back at her. His eyes narrowed, but the smile remained. “I knew Lydia Albright for over twenty years. In all that time, she never spoke of family. I never wanted to pry. People come to the desert for many reasons. Some are drawn by the mystery of the mountains, or the beautiful wildness of the land. Others are leaving behind a painful past.”

When he stopped there, Jordan inhaled a deep breath and hoped he wouldn’t ask her why she’d come to New Mexico.

“This is a good place to start fresh because people around here don’t ask a lot of questions,” he continued. “I knew Lydia had her secrets, but I can’t even begin to guess why she never mentioned you. It was only near the end that she said she had a niece at all—when she told me she was leaving you the ranch. She obviously cared for you. Seems a shame you never came to visit her.”

Taken aback by his presumptions, Jordan’s eyes grew wide. “Do you always say what’s on your mind, Mr. Brannigan? Even if you don’t know what you’re talking about?”

He rubbed a hand across his chin again. “I’m afraid so, Jordan. You’ll get used to it.”

She bit back a smile. His honesty and forthrightness was refreshing. Still, she debated whether to tell him more. Her family was none of his business. Then again, Lydia had been his neighbor and friend for a long time. It was only natural for him to be curious about her. She was an interloper. If she shared a morsel with him, he might be satisfied and leave. Then she could get on with all she had planned for the afternoon. She shifted her stance.

BOOK: Takin' The Reins
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