HER FOREVER COWBOY 

WEST COAST HEA

Book 1: HER FOREVER COWBOY 

A bull rider and a New York executive walk into a Nevada B&B…no, really, they do. Each is honoring an old debt, and running the Silver Rose Guest Ranch is their job for the summer before they go back to their old worlds. But what if one summer isn’t enough?

Release date: 11/1/2017

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From Deb’s FIRST KISS: TUESDAY blog:

“Why is it so important to be number one?”

He shrugged. “No doubt Dr. Freud would say it’s wrapped up in my dad dying. People have told me he might have won Best All-Around Cowboy the year he died. My folks were on their way home from a rodeo when their truck rolled and went into a ditch.”

In an effort to brush away the sadness in her eyes, he said, “Or, as your mother liked to say, it could be cussed orneriness. She said I inherited that from my grandfather. Bull riding is what I do.”

“Even if it kills you?”

Will startled. Did she know about his doctor’s report? He knew rumors had been circulating when he left, but surely Anne couldn’t have heard anything. “What’s that mean?”

“You’re getting older. Your body isn’t as malleable as a young kid’s. You could land wrong and break your neck.”

He released the breath he’d been holding. “Actually, I may not look it, but I’m in better shape today than I was fifteen years ago. I lift weights and run. And my timing is sharper.”

She took a deep breath. “I wasn’t casting any aspersions on your body.” The compliment seemed to loom between them and she quickly added, “So, you’re planning on going back to the circuit this fall.” It wasn’t a question.

“Definitely.”

She rose to her knees and started to gather up their mess. “And, I’m taking a new job, too–a promotion that’s long overdue. It sounds like we have our futures all lined up and ready to go. To get involved on an emotional level would be terribly foolish, don’t you agree?”

“When you put it like that…but–”

She didn’t let him finish. “We’re adults, Will, not kids. Proximity and unresolved lust just aren’t good enough reasons to risk involvement.”

Will agreed on an intellectual level, but the shimmer on her lips was speaking to him at a different level altogether. “So, we won’t get involved, but one kiss every fifteen years isn’t going to kill us.”

She started to disagree, but Will knew a proven way to distract a woman. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her.

Anne gave a token resistance–a mumbled uh-uh that almost immediately turned to uh-huh. There was a small clattering sound as the colored pens scattered on the floor. Her arms encircled his shoulders, her body flattened against his as her mouth opened.

She tasted salty and sweet. Popcorn and soda, plus an intangible quality that made him groan. And as their tongues met, Will knew he’d made a serious mistake. Fifteen years hadn’t been enough to make him forget, and now, he had nowhere to run.


Hope that snippet whet your interest.  If you’d like to keep reading, here’s Chapter One © Loner Llama Press:

 

The one piece? Or the bikini?

Anne Fraser knelt before the bottom drawer of her dresser like a novitiate at prayer. Her hand wavered between two disparate clumps of fabric. One sober, practical–useful for the occasional onsite inspection of a World Hospitality Corporation hotel pool. The other a sexy scrap of bright colors purchased at a time when tempting the man in her life took precedence over the checking chlorine levels at a WHC property.

She snatched the black one-piece suit from its spot and tossed it over her shoulder, hoping it would land near the open suitcase on the bed. “I don’t even know if the Silver Rose has a pool,” she muttered, opening a second drawer. “It didn’t when I lived there.”

But a lot could change in fifteen years. Lord knows she had.

She stared, unseeing, at the neatly folded summer clothes. Three months in Nevada. Am I out of my mind?

Her boss, Roger McFinney, had asked the same question less than an hour earlier when he accosted her in her office. Even though her request for family leave had been approved by the head of personnel, Roger hadn’t been pleased. “Am I expected to hold this door open to you for three months while you run off to the wilds of Nevada to fulfill some tenuous stepdaughter obligation?”

In his early sixties, Roger looked fifteen years younger. Some in the office attributed this to his vampire heritage. But he’d been Anne’s mentor for five years and was the reason she had a shot at an executive-level job.

“Anne,” he’d said, softening as much as Roger softened, “your mother is dead. Surely whatever guilt you feel for not spending more time with her at the end isn’t worth the job of a lifetime.”

Anne’s mother, Esther, had passed away in February, and not a night went by that Anne didn’t think about her with regret. So when A.J. Cavanaugh, Anne’s stepfather, called to ask for her help this summer, Anne couldn’t say no–especially when Zoey added a little emotional arm-twisting.

“Please, Mommy,” her eight-year-old daughter had begged. “Grandpa needs us. And you promised I’d get to visit the ranch when I was older. I’ll be nine in July, you know.”

Anne knew. And Esther’s death had driven home one immutable fact: life was fleeting. Zoey was growing up too fast, and Anne was missing out. Maybe that was the true reason she’d agreed to this trip. All Anne knew for certain was that her motivation didn’t stem from any love for Nevada. The eighteen months she’d spent there in high school had been eighteen too many in her book. Esther had come to love the sage scrub and fir-covered landscape of the high desert, but Anne didn’t share those feelings.

Anne quickly selected an assortment of shorts, jeans and tops then turned her attention to her lingerie drawer. Two sports bras. Three regular. Maybe the push-up… Her hand hovered over the satin fabric. Why bother? She gave a mental shrug and added it to the pile. A 34-B didn’t take up much space.

She chose two sets of pajamas. One summer-weight cotton, one flannel. Late May on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range offered variable weather as she recalled. The snow had probably been gone for a month, but mornings could be chilly.

The historic Silver Rose Guest Ranch was a unique anachronism–a working ranch existing within a stone’s throw of a burgeoning population. Thirty minutes from Reno, the Silver Rose was a juicy prospect for developers. Given the economic realities of ranching, A.J. had been forced to sell off several parcels close to the highway over the years. He might have sold out completely if he hadn’t met Esther. She’d talked him into opening the ranch to guests not long after Anne moved out.

Anne’s brief sojourn at the Silver Rose had ended with her graduation from high school. She’d returned several times over the years, but never for a prolonged stay. The Silver Rose was her mother’s domain–a shadowy memory that still had the power to haunt Anne’s dreams and fill her with a sense of failure.

She let out a sigh and turned on one heel, her bare foot making a squeaky sound on the gleaming hardwood floor. Wood provided a fiber-free surface that was easier to keep clean. Dust, pollen, pet hair, smoke, and mold were her daughter’s enemies. Once Zoey stepped outside, her fragile lungs and easily compromised bronchia were subject to forces beyond Anne’s control. But behind the door of their apartment, Anne was as vigilant as possible. “A clean freak,” Anne once heard Maria, her housekeeper/nanny, tell someone on the phone.

Anne didn’t care what the woman thought as long as she followed Anne’s rules: no smelly cleaning products, aerosol cans, perfumes or scented lotions.  Maria also had to pass an emergency-response course and learn CPR before entering Anne’s employ.

How Anne would create an asthma-friendly environment in an eighty-year-old ranch house with barns, a riding arena and a forest just beyond the main compound was anybody’s guess. But she was hoping the altitude and clean air would offset indoor hazards. She’d already shipped their spare ozone purifier for Zoey’s room. At worst, the little girl would be housebound, but Anne prayed it wouldn’t come to that. Zoey had her heart set on learning how to ride a horse this summer. A prospect that didn’t thrill Anne in the least.

Anne had consulted with all three of Zoey’s doctors, and each was optimistic about the positive benefits of the trip. One had even gone so far as to suggest that simply having Anne around more would lessen Zoey’s stress level and reduce the frequency of her attacks.

Another helping of guilt, Ms. Fraser?

Why, yes, Doctor. Thank you. That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear.

Not.

No single mother who worked for a living needed to be told that her absence was stressful to her child–especially an asthmatic child.

And the past six months had been more chaotic than usual–for both Anne and Zoey. Just before Christmas, an opening in the top tier of WHC management had been announced. Roger had assured Anne the job was hers if she wanted it. The position represented the brass ring Anne had been striving for for years. When she called her mother with the good news, Anne learned that Esther was at a clinic in Reno for some “stomach trouble.” Three weeks later, A.J. called to say the problem had been diagnosed as pancreatic cancer and the prognosis was bad.

Anne had immediately headed west. Alone. The winter months had already taken a toll on Zoey, who seemed to catch every germ in public school. To everyone’s regret, the little girl wasn’t well enough to accompany Anne on either of her two trips to Nevada – one to visit her mother in the hospital and the other to say goodbye just hours before Esther passed away.

Now, Anne was going back again. With Zoey. For the entire summer.

Three thousand miles from our respiratory professionals. Anne pressed the heel of her hand to the spot below her breastbone where a germ of fear replicated with abandon in her belly.

As she folded the clothing with practiced ease, she recalled the conversation that had produced this unwelcome bit of penance. When A.J had called three weeks earlier, Anne had been touched that he’d turned to her for help. “I need you, Annie girl.” He was the only person in the world who called her Annie.

At the time, she’d been prepared to drop everything and fly to Nevada for a few days to help him over this hurdle of grief. She was still hurting, too. The speed of Esther’s demise hadn’t given anyone time to prepare.

But A.J.’S call wasn’t about solace. He wanted–no, he demanded–three months of her life. “I promised your mother I’d take her home when the time came,” he’d explained. “I need you to hold down the fort while I’m gone. Some of our guests have been coming for ten years or better. This won’t be easy for them.”

Them? Anne had wanted to cry.  What about me? There’s no way in the world I can fill Mom’s shoes.

Rather than admit that the thought of trying to take her mother’s place terrified her, Anne argued that it was unfeasible to expect a person to request a three-month leave of absence from her job. Her life.

“I heard about something called ‘family leave,'” A.J. had said. “An employer can’t deny it, if the employee has it coming. You’ve been with that company since college, Anne. Who’s more deserving than you?”

“But…”

Whatever argument she’d planned to use disappeared when he said, “I’m just asking you to handle the guest part of the operation. Will’s coming home to take care of the ranch.”

When she failed to comment on that astonishing revelation, he added, “For more years than I care to admit, I promised Esther a leisurely trip to the East Coast.” His voice took on a gruff edge. “Stop and go when we wanted. See the sights. Visit old friends.”

Anne vaguely remembered hearing her mother talk about such a trip.

“Esther made a list of people and places she wanted to see. Mapped the whole route. I kept putting her off.” He swallowed the quaver in his voice. “Can’t put if off no more, Annie. It’s time for reckoning.”

After a tiny pause, he added, “I helped you out when you wanted to go to that fancy college. And later on, too–after you and the mister broke up. Now, I need your help.”

What could she say? He was right. A.J. and her mother had been there anytime she asked. And how had she repaid their kindness? By keeping too busy to visit regularly. By sending emails instead of making phone calls.

But his timing couldn’t have been worse. “Is there any chance you could make this later in the summer?” Once my promotion is in the bag, I could probably swing some time off.

“No, dang it,” he’d barked with unusual volume. A.J. was by nature a quiet, soft-spoken man with a gentle but resolute style. Her mother had often said that once A.J. Cavanaugh made up his mind, it would take an act of Congress to change it. “This is how Esther wanted it. Can I count on you?”

Anne’s answer was the only one possible. “Of course, A.J. I will be happy to help out.” Her mother would have seen right through her fake cheer. A.J. probably did, too, but he graciously offered to meet her plane as soon as she let him know the time of arrival.

“Mommy, can I take my PlayStation?”

Anne looked over her shoulder. Zoey stood in the doorway. Three foot eight inches tall, ethereally thin, with wispy, blond hair and emerald eyes that looked huge given the pale aubergine hollows under them and regal cheekbones. Zoey Elizabeth Fraser was an enchanting mix of princess, tomboy, and scholar.  Anne could no more pigeon-hole her daughter’s character than she could harness a butterfly. Despite being hampered by a fragile bronchial system that betrayed her at moments when her emotions were running high, Zoey remained bold and adventurous.

“Yes, love, you may bring anything and everything that will help you feel at home. Books. Puzzles. Videos. Grandpa assured me they have two computers, so put in your favorite games. I can’t guarantee how speedy his are, but I’ll have my laptop in case they’re dinosaurs.”

Zoey made a face. “You’re not going to work for him while we’re there, are you?”

Him. Roger had become Zoey’s bogeyman–the person responsible for every ruined dinner, missed bath, and too-short bedtime story.

“Not unless it means losing my job.”

“You mean your pr’motion.”

Anne ignored the contentious tone. “Yes.”

Zoey’s forehead wrinkled in a way that reminded Anne of A.J.–although biologically that was impossible, since Anne and A.J. were related by marriage, not blood. “If you get it, would we have to move? Again?”

The tone applied to the last word said it all. Since they’d already covered this territory more than once, Anne walked to her closet without replying.

She opened the doors. Ninety percent of her wardrobe was business suits. “Let’s see. What do I need? Jacket? Yes. Cardigan? Absolutely. Raincoat? I can’t remember if it rains there in the summer.” In truth, Anne didn’t recall much about her Nevada experience. She’d spent most of the time indoors behind a book.

She’d moved to the Silver Rose during Christmas vacation of her junior year of high school – a tough time to expect to fit in, even for someone outgoing. Her natural shyness and Maine accent had labeled her “different.” She made a few acquaintances, but no close friends.

In addition to the unhappy school experience, Anne’s home life was difficult. She felt left out of her mother and A.J.’s newly-wedded bliss and slightly resentful for her father’s sake, even though he’d been dead for five years. Then, to make matters worse, she’d developed a ridiculous crush on Will, her stepfather’s grandson.

Will Cavanaugh. Rodeo darling. Sexy cowboy sought after by every cool girl in school. And while he bore absolutely no biological connection to her whatsoever, Anne couldn’t shake the idea that their being together would seem slightly incestuous.

She made every effort to hide her feelings, but apparently Will guessed that she was attracted to him –or perhaps he just assumed she was, since every other girl in school adored him. A few weeks before his graduation ceremony, they’d bumped into each other on the front porch. Where he’d been headed, she could only guess, but he seemed in no hurry to leave. They shared a soda and a few laughs. Then, to her surprise, they talked.

Hungry for closeness, needing a friend, she opened her heart to him. And he opened his to her. A friendly hug led to a kiss. Her first.

A kiss that ignited a fire deep in her soul. But it was the last they ever shared. His momentary look of wonder changed to one of mortification. A moment later, he mumbled something about needing to pick up Judy–the girl he’d supposedly broken up with a few days earlier.

Anne accepted his excuse at face value. One kiss from her was all it took to send him running back to his buxom blond cheerleader.  Anne was crushed but not completely surprised. Men left. She’d learned that lesson when her father died.

“Mo-o-om.”

Uh-oh, the three-syllable version of the word. Anne looked over her shoulder. “Pardon? Oh, you asked about a move. Yes, hon, if I get the job, I’m sure there will be a transfer involved. Possibly to the Pacific Northwest.” Damp. Rainy. Mold capital of the world? She fought to keep from frowning.

“I don’t want to move anymore, Mommy. Couldn’t we just stay in Nevada? Please, Mommy.” Her daughter’s plaintive tone made Anne’s chest tighten anxiously. For someone so sick, Zoey hardly ever whined. But this particular broken-record complaint about their itinerant lifestyle had been cropping up for over a year.

“Sweetheart, you’ve only been to Nevada once when you were a tiny baby. You might hate the place.”

“Or love it. Gramma loved it, right?”

Anne motioned her daughter into the room, then led her to the fainting couch in the far corner and sat down. She pulled Zoey’s small body into her arms then settled back against the worn, red velvet. The couch had been a wedding present from A.J. and Esther. If A.J.’s claim was true, the ornate piece of furniture once resided at the Mustang Ranch – one of Nevada’s most notorious bordellos.

She stroked Zoey’s baby-fine hair and kissed her ear. “Your grandmother Esther was a free spirit. She sought change like some people seek gold. She met my father at a single’s dance she’d been forbidden to attend. Two weeks later they eloped and I was born nine months after that.”

Zoey snuggled close. When she sighed, Anne could feel the slight rattle in her chest. Bothersome, but no need for the inhaler.

“What happened then?”

“Well, we moved around a lot because Daddy was a salesman. But when I started school, he took a job in a hotel in Springfield, Illinois, so we could stay in one place. Mama worked there, too, on weekends so Daddy could stay home with me. She claimed it was her time off for good behavior.”

As usual, the comment made her daughter snicker.

Zoey fiddled with a button on Anne’s shirt “Then he died, and Grandma was super sad and you moved back to Maine to stay with Great-Grandma and Grandpa Jensen for a couple of years, until she stopped being so sad and started living again and went looking for adventure.”

Anne ticked her under the arm. “Who’s telling this story?”

Zoey squirmed with mock distress then settled against Anne again. My little big girl.

“That’s when she found Grandpa A.J. in Nevada, right?” Zoey asked, with a barely stifled yawn. “They wrote love letters. And talked on the phone. Then one day, he showed up in Maine and took her home with him.”

Anne smiled against her daughter’s crown. Her mother had loved to tell that story. “Nobody thought it would work out,” Esther would tell people. “My parents begged me to leave Anne with them, but she’s an adventurer–just like her mother.”

Anne knew that was a lie. In truth, she’d been terrified that her mother would forget about her, her grandparents would die, and she’d be left alone. She’d chosen Nevada out of fear, not adventure.

Zoey’s body went boneless. Sleep. Anne closed her eyes for a few seconds. Fatigue made her joints ache, but she still had to finish packing Zoey’s things then write a report for Roger. Penance of another kind.

She eased the sleeping child down carefully and covered her with a cotton throw. As she walked to the bathroom to pack her toiletries, Anne’s thoughts lingered on her Nevada experience.

To this day, the most memorable moment from that period was the kiss she and Will shared. Not only her first kiss, but her first French kiss. Will’s tongue in her mouth. A breathless joining of heat and passion that even now brought a flush to her cheek.

She made a face in the mirror and stuck out her tongue. “You’re a hard-luck case, girlfriend. No squeezing of boob. Or hand down the pants. Just a freakin’ kiss.” One that should have been washed from her memory years ago.

Stifling a sigh, she opened the upper cabinet and started filling a zipper plastic bag with toiletries she probably couldn’t buy in Nevada. A small smile tugged up one corner of her lips. Why do women remember things like that? I bet Will has forgotten it completely. Will had been a year older and light-years more advanced, both socially and sexually. A single kiss would hardly have made much of an impression on someone like him.

He’d barely spoken to her after their encounter on the porch. Not that she’d given him much opportunity, Anne had to admit. Humiliated by his apparent rejection and mortified by her passionate reaction to his touch, she’d scurried the other way anytime she saw him approach.

And something had happened to Will at the national rodeo competition later that summer. She hadn’t attended, of course, but she recalled the grim look on his face when he returned. Not long after that, Will set off to pursue his dream of becoming the number-one bull rider in the country.

Anne left for college the following spring. Busy with her career, a difficult marriage, and a sick child, she seldom found time to return to the Silver Rose. Despite the familial link, Anne and Will rarely crossed paths–until this past February. At her mother’s funeral.

He’d arrived late. A gentle handshake had segued into a hug. Too numb to cry, Anne had blinked against the fine wool of his suit before he let her go. They’d mumbled words of mutual despair and loss, then she’d been whisked away to catch a plane to return to poor, sick Zoey.

Now, virtual strangers, they were about to become business partners.

* * *

Will Cavanaugh had debated trying to slip out of the post-event hoopla unnoticed. The PBR, or Professional Bull Riders organization, was known to fine riders as much as five hundred dollars if they failed to make themselves available to the public after an event. And while Will wasn’t worried about the money, he didn’t want to leave the tour on a sour note.

Technically, he wasn’t a competitor. He hadn’t ridden, but he had been introduced to the sellout crowd. His name was still popular with fans. But  fame was fleeting once a rider was out of the spotlight.

Thanks to an overly cautious doctor, Will had been side-lined for three months–minimum. If Walt Crain, an orthopedist specializing in sports trauma, had his way, Will would be off the circuit for good.

“Consider yourself the Steve Young of bull riding,” the fifty-something doctor had said after interpreting the results of an extensive round of CAT scans and MRIs. “You could wear two helmets, but nothing will erase that fracture along here,” he’d told Will, pointing to a faint white line in the upper most vertebra.

To Will, the spidery line didn’t look any different from the thirty or so other breaks and fractures he’d suffered in the course of his career.

“Another poke and you could be eating Jell-O through a straw for the rest of your life–if you’re lucky.”

Walt’s frank, no-nonsense manner made him popular with the riders– unless they were the recipients of the kind of news he’d given Will. For the most part, riders and doctors accepted that in a sport like bull riding, which pitted the brute strength and wily contortions of a two-thousand pound beast against a man armed only with a rope and spurs, riders would get injured. Broken bones, punctured lungs, and concussions were just part of the job. But Walt claimed to draw the line at suicide by bull. “Giving you a green light to climb on the back of a bull would be like signing your death warrant, Will. It’s time for you to think about retirement.”

Washed up at the ripe old age of thirty-three. How is that fair?

Will took a deep breath and forced his hands to unclench. The smells on the ground floor of the arena might turn off some people, but to him the dirt, dust, dung, and sweat was home. Bull riding was the only job he’d ever done. He had a high school diploma, and thanks to a thriftiness instilled in him by his grandfather, a fairly healthy bank account. But he was still missing that golden ring, which carried with the title of champion. A goal he’d been pursuing with single-minded focus forever since high school.

Now, thanks to one man, Will was being told he had to step away. He was angry, frustrated and itching for a fight, but he made sure none of that showed on his face as he strolled through the throng crowding the staging area just beyond the arena where the bull riding had taken place.

Will had been to New Orleans several times. The New Orleans Arena put on a good show–fireworks exploding overhead, pre-event activities on Bourbon Street, good media coverage. Will had watched from the chutes, helping as needed. He knew from experience that a pat on the back or word of encouragement went a long way when a young rider found himself airborne well before the eight-second buzzer.

As he looked around, Will wasn’t surprised to see the largest crowd – kids and a bevy of women – clustered around Troy Jones.

Troy was twenty-three, green as his flashy trademark vest, but basically an intuitive rider with an ideal center of gravity. He was a good kid. Tonight, he’d drawn Rounder, a rank bull with more twists than a hunk of barbed wire. In bull-riding lingo, rank meant mean, nasty and hard to ride. The more difficult the ride, the better the score – provided you could stay on.

Troy had earned eighty-five points for his efforts. Combined with the score from his first bull, he’d take home a sizable purse. And by the looks of it, he’d also have his pick of pretty young gals with stars in their eyes, if he was so inclined.

Lord knows, Will had partaken of his share over the years–both purses and girls. He’d never found the right one, though.

An elbow jostled him. Will put on his game face and turned, ready to sign his name to a hat, program or body part.

“Still pouting, I see.” A small man dressed in Wranglers, a black, western-styled long-sleeve shirt and black cowboy hat grinned at him.

Speak of the devil. “Yeah, Doc, call the waaambulance. I’m about ready to cry.”

Walt Crain laughed.

“You takin’ off tonight, Will, or joining the guys downtown?”

Will had considered staying. He enjoyed the lusty, life-affirming abandon of New Orlean’s nightlife. The music, the crowds, the liquor. A person could lose himself–and his worries–in the energy. But the chasm of uncertainty facing him didn’t invite revelry. Besides, back in Nevada, his grandfather was chomping at the bit to hit the road.

“The sooner I get started, the sooner I’ll be at the ranch,” Will said, making up his mind as he spoke the words. He scanned the now-thinning crowd to judge whether or not he’d put in enough public relations time. Despite what his doctor thought, Will planned to return to bull riding, and he wanted to make his temporary exit on good terms.

Early in his career, Will had enjoyed the meet-and-greet. Bull riding drew fans from all walks of life. Most were positive, enthusiastic and respectful, and usually he found it a pleasure to stand among them. But too often lately, he’d experienced the humiliation of facing the crowd after landing on his butt two seconds into his ride. And he’d never forget the surreal feeling of signing autographs before catching a ride to the emergency room, where Walt was waiting to set his broken arm–the other one, not his signing arm.

Will was about to turn away, when a little boy–probably seven or eight, he guessed–ran up to him, an adult-size straw hat in hand. “Could y’all sign this hat for me?” The boy’s wide grin revealed several gaping holes where new teeth were starting to sprout.

Will dropped to one knee. “Sure, son. What’s your name?”

“Gooley Jompers.” He glanced between the men sheepishly. “It’s really George, but my kin all call me Gooley. My uncle says it’ll make a good bull riding name. Whattay’all think?”

Will had to suppress a chuckle. The boy was cute as a puppy and full of life. He didn’t want to be the one responsible for squashing his dreams–that’s what doctors were for. “I think Gooley is a great name. Has a real ring to it.”

He uncapped his fine-line felt-tip marker and signed his name on the hat, in one of the few remaining blank spots. It didn’t surprise him–or even hurt his feelings–that he wasn’t the first to sign. He’d been the first in other years.

He shook the boy’s hand solemnly. “You take care and study real hard in school so nobody can cheat you out of your money when you’re a rich bull rider, okay? You never know when somebody will come along and tell you you can’t ride any more.”

Gooley nodded as if the words were gospel, but a second later he bolted away with a quick, “Thank ya, suh.”

Will watched him join his parents and stifled a bittersweet sigh. He liked kids and wouldn’t have minded having a couple of his own, but the rolling-stone lifestyle of bull riding didn’t lend itself to settling down. Hell, Will had barely even made it home to see his grandfather and Esther as often as he should have–which is one reason A.J. hadn’t needed to do much arm-twisting to get Will back for the summer. Guilt was a powerful tool. So was not having anything else going on in his life.

He got to his feet with a soft groan. His left knee wasn’t quite healed from the surgery he’d had six months earlier. Nothing serious–just a little nip and tuck to clean up some scar tissue and remove a bit of fluid.

Walt grabbed his shirt sleeve and tugged. “You’re good with kids, Will. I’ve noticed before the way you take the time to talk to them at their level–not like some of the hotshots who only have time for the ladies. Especially the ones with big hooters.”

Will started toward the locker room where his gear was stashed. Walt followed. “Maybe you ought to think about settling down and starting a family,” the older man said.

“Maybe you should mind your own business.” It irked Will to have his thoughts come out of Walt Crain’s mouth.

Walt cuffed Will’s shoulder lightly. “Son, you are my business. That’s why I want to keep you alive. Now, go back to Nevada, find a pretty gal and have a couple of kids. Maybe a few years from now your son will be out there in that arena and you’ll thank me for keeping you alive long enough to see that day.”

Will snorted. Liking kids didn’t automatically make a person a family man. He was a bull rider. First and foremost. And he would be back–just as soon as he paid this debt to his grandfather, the man who’d given him a home and raised him.

Because his grandfather had trained him to treat people civilly, Will turned to the physician and held out his hand. “Look, Doc, I don’t agree with your diagnosis, but until you say otherwise I’m grounded. I’m heading home for the summer. But come next fall, I’m going to get a second–or third–opinion, because this is my life. I will be back.”

Walt smiled enigmatically and winked. “Unless some sweet young thing sweeps you off your feet.”

Will guffawed–the first time he’d laughed in days. He knew the likelihood of that happening was on par with his winning top-money-earner status this year. His grandfather had already informed Will that he’d be sharing the management duties of the Silver Rose with Anne Fraser.

“You’ll be in charge of the land, the animals, and keeping the city slickers from killing themselves. Anne will handle things back at the house,” A.J. had explained.

Will couldn’t imagine how his grandfather had talked Anne into coming back for the summer. From everything Will had heard about her over the years, Anne was as goal oriented and driven in her career of hotel management as Will was in his.

Despite their common history, Will knew surprisingly little about her. An executive of some hotel chain. Divorced, with a young daughter named Zoey. Currently living in New York City.

He pictured her as pretty but reserved. Shy. She’d had a difficult time fitting in when she first moved to the ranch. Will had tried to keep an eye on her, but his high-school rodeo team had been closing in on the state championship that year. Then there’d been his near miss at the title, and his disappointing showing at the Nationals. Life had taken a sharp turn in the opposite direction after that.

Will remembered kissing her once. He’d been attracted to her for reasons he couldn’t wholly define, but she’d made it clear that he wasn’t her type. She planned to attend some big-name college back East and couldn’t wait to leave Nevada behind her.  A cowboy didn’t figure into her life then, and from their few brief encounters over the years, Will had no reason to imagine her opinion had changed.

“Like I said, Doc. I’ll see you in Reno in September. Next year, that championship title is mine, and don’t you forget it.”

* * *

Zoey Fraser peeked over the rim of the airplane’s window. Her mother said they were too high up to see anything, and she was right. Just clouds. Thin wispy layers of gray and white.

She took a deep breath, mentally checking for any telltale sign that something was wrong. At eight-soon-to-be-nine, she was a pro at gauging her excitement level to avoid triggering an asthma attack, but this trip had her very excited. She felt in the pocket of her sweatshirt to make sure her inhaler was there.

“What will Maria do without us, Mom?”

Zoey glanced sideways. Mom had been staring at the same page of her magazine for ten minutes. Uh-oh. She’s freaking out inside but trying to hold it together. Zoey was pretty good at gauging her mother’s moods, too.

“She already has a temporary job for the summer. Didn’t I tell you that?”

Mom blinked a couple of time, as if coming out of a dream. Did she sleep at all last night?

Zoey knew her mother was stressed. Who wouldn’t be with all that was going on? This summer would be good for her–even if she didn’t want to leave her job.

Her job. Zoey felt a spike of something unpleasant in the back of her throat. That ugly troll Mr. McFinney was the reason Zoey spent more time with her nanny than she did with her mother.

Zoey couldn’t wait to get to Nevada–it was a whole country away from Roger McFinney. Zoey didn’t ever want to go back to New York. It was an okay city, but her school was crowded and the older boys were mean and pushy. The girls were cliquish and it was hard to make friends. Two girls from her school lived in her building, but they were older. They talked about boys and worried about their weight and clothes. Zoey didn’t care about any of those things. She wanted a dog, which her mother would never agree to as long as they lived in the city. She wanted to ride a horse, which she might get to do while living on a ranch. And more than anything, she wanted her mother not to work so hard.

The airplane gave a little bump and Mom reached out to touch Zoey’s leg–as if to unconsciously reassure herself her baby was okay. Zoey frowned. She wasn’t a baby any more. She would turn nine in July. Will Mom throw me a party? Who could we invite? Do any kids come with their parents to the Silver Rose?

She turned to look out the window again. Summer birthdays were no fun. Kids whose birthdays came during the school year got parties with lots of friends and presents. Zoey didn’t care about the presents that much, but she’d always dreamed about having a bit party with lots of fun games and a special cake.

Maybe I’ll grow this summer. She sat up a little straighter. A ranch sounded like a great place to do outdoors things. Fresh air and exercise. According to Grandpa A.J., that’s just what Zoey needed to beat her asthma. Zoey hoped he was right. She was tired of being sick. She’d visited the emergency room so often she knew which nurses hurt you when they took your blood and which gave candy suckers.

“How do you feel?”

Startled from her thoughts, Zoey frowned and looked at her hands. “Fine.” One part of Zoey liked it that  Mom worried about her, but another part hated to be treated like a baby.

“Good. Sometimes this recirculated air really bothers me when I’m on a long flight. Do you want a drink of water? I brought both of your filtering bottles.”

Zoey knew that. She’d unpacked them during the inspection of their bags. The frowning man in a funny uniform had spent a good five minutes examining Zoey’s plastic zippered bag full of medicine bottles. Finally, he’d given her a sympathetic smile and let them pass through.

It made her mad when people acted as if she was pathetic.

“Do you want to play cards?”

“I guess so. Old Maid?”

Zoey produced the deck from her carry-on bag. They’d played hours of the game in hospital waiting rooms. As she dealt the cards on their fold-down tables, she asked, “Can I able ride a horse this summer?”

Mom picked up each card and immediately arranged them in her hand. “The horses are for the guests, honey. The Silver Rose gives them a chance to practice their equestrian skills.” She looked up, waiting for Zoey’s response to Mom’s subtle emphasis on the second-to-last word.

Zoey rolled her eyes. Her mother loved to use big words to challenge Zoey’s vocabulary. “Horseback riding,” she supplied, because she liked knowing the answer.

“Very good. Can you spell it?”

No.  “I could, but I’m on vacation.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

They looked at each other and laughed. Her mother winked. “You’re a good sport. Thanks for putting up with me, pal.”

Zoey’s chest tightened, but it wasn’t from asthma. She loved her mother, but she worried about her, too. Mom had changed in these past few months. Zoey didn’t know if it was from her job or from Grandma Esther dying or what. But she had bags under her eyes–not that they made her less pretty. Zoey noticed the way men looked at her mother, even if Mom didn’t.

That was another reason Zoey thought this move might be good for them. Maybe in Nevada, Mom would meet a man. Possibly even a cowboy. Which might not seem like her mother’s type, but a cowboy would have horses, and riding a horse was Zoey’s goal in life.

“You know, Mommy, some day I’ll be gone.”

Anne gave a horrified gasp.

“To college.”

Without thinking. Mom laid down a card that played right into Zoey’s hand.

“I win.” Her mother was really easy to beat when she was distracted.

“You did that on purpose, didn’t you, my sweet little cheat?” Mom’s teasing tone made Zoey smile.

Zoey used her special Hello Kitty pen to draw a cross on a page of her journal, then put their names at the top of the two columns. After writing down the score, Zoey said, “I think you should get married again.”

The cards went flying every which way–like germs when somebody sneezed. “Did you do that just to watch me pick up cards?” her mother asked. Her neck was scrunched up against the seat in front of her. “You’ll have to get the Old Maid, I can’t reach her.”

Zoey squeezed into the space with no problem and retrieved the card. “I said it because I don’t want you to be lonely. To wind up an old maid.” She looked at the image on the card in her hand. The cartoon figure had buck teeth, silly socks pulled up to her knobby knees, fat ringlet and big lips. “Maria says women who aren’t married by the time they’re thirty are old maids.” She glanced at the card again. “Not that you look like one. You’re beautiful. And nice. I think some man would like to marry you a lot.”

Her mother chuckled. “Well, thank you for that endorsement.” She tucked the Old Maid card back into the deck and finished shuffling. As she dealt the cards, she said, “You know, honey, I don’t have anything against marriage. I loved your daddy to pieces when we first got married. But marriage is a lot of work, and I’m pretty busy with my job. And you.”

Zoey could vouch for that. Some nights she was asleep before her mom got home. Maria was nice, but she wasn’t as smart and fun as her mom. And she spent a lot of time playing black-jack on the computer–although Zoey didn’t share that information with Mom. There were worse things than a nanny who gambled. Like after-school child care. Little kids with runny noses. Bad smells from wet coats and stinky feet in the locker room.

Zoey had been sick so much of that first year of school Zoey’s teachers had suggested holding her back a grade. Instead, Anne hired Maria. No more before-school and after-school daycare.

“I just think you should think about getting married.”

Anne appeared to be concentrating on the game. “Okay.”

“I’ll learn to ride a horse and you’ll look for a husband.”

Mom lowered her cards. Her left eyebrow rose in an arch. “We’ll see.”

Zoey took a deep breath to keep her excitement from getting out of hand. Her mom had sorta agreed to think about letting Zoey ride a horse–which, of course, had been the whole point of bringing up the idea of marriage. It deflected Mom’s focus from the important topic. Not that marriage wasn’t important, but Zoey knew her mother would never get married again. She was too busy to fall in love.

But, then again, like Grandpa said on the phone the last time they talked, “This summer is about fixing the past and getting a fresh start on the future. Who knows what will happen, kiddo?”

Her mother cleared her throat. “Your turn.”

The chuckle in her voice made Zoey expect the worst. Sure enough, she had to pick up the Old Maid. But at the moment, Zoey felt too happy to care.

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