Authors: Jesse Hayworth
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General
He was nothing like she expected.
Foster ran open the mare’s door and demonstrated how to put the nylon strapping in place so the horse was contained but still accessible. “You and the little one stay outside. No going in with the horses, no letting them out, and no feeding them fingers. They’re herbivores.”
“Got it.” Shelby would’ve saluted the list of orders, but she was too surprised by the gesture. After yesterday, she would’ve expected scowls and grumbles from him, not access. “Thank you.” Impulsively, she reached out and caught his forearm, gave it a squeeze. “I mean it. Seriously. Thank you.”
He looked down at where her hand had landed, making her very aware of the solid feel of his muscles, the warmth of his body.
She pulled away and said, “Sorry,” just as he said, “You’re welcome,” so the courtesies got muddled. Outside, a whole bunch of footsteps and voices were suddenly audible, and a chorus of “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ . . .” broke out as the dudes migrated out of the dining hall and headed for the barn for their first day of riding.
Flushing, she stepped away. “I should go.”
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Copyright © Jessica Andersen, 2013
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Once upon a summer I met a handsome cowboy who winked at me and made me laugh, and after a while, made me think “what if?” What if I left my safe, familiar world for his? What would it be like to start over?
In the end I stayed in my life and he stayed in his, and when the summer ended he rode off into the sunset, as guys like him do. Still, I found myself wondering . . . what if? And after a while, I started writing down those questions, and those summertime dreams took on a life of their own, becoming the story of a woman who thinks she has it all figured out and a cowboy whose life doesn’t look anything like hers.
Welcome to Mustang Ridge Ranch, and into the lives of the Skye family, their employees, and the guests who come to live out their dreams. Whether they’re gathered around the campfire or riding out in search of the herd, the men and women of Mustang Ridge always find their way home. And sometimes they find each other.
I wish the same for you, dear reader, with all my heart. For now, though, I hope you’ll turn the page and join Shelby and Foster on the ride of their lives.
kay, no pressure. We’re just here to have fun. Ready?” Shelby paused with her hand on a pair of saloon-style swinging doors to grin down at Lizzie, hoping her daughter couldn’t see the nerves. “Me, neither, but let’s do it anyway.”
She pushed through into the dining hall of the ranch, which continued the Western theme from the log-style exterior, complete with rope accents, primitive furniture, and antler chandeliers. Thirty or so men and women wearing crunchy-new denim and unscuffed Western boots milled around long picnic tables with drinks in hand, creating a cocktail party’s worth of noise, and a banner over the huge stone fireplace proclaimed
HOWDY THERE, FILLIES AND STUDS. WELCOME TO SINGLES WEEK AT MUSTANG RIDGE!
The moment the doors banged shut behind Shelby, a dozen or so pairs of eyes zeroed in and gave her an up-and-down, making her very aware that her black pants, pin-striped jacket, and chunky boots probably said “straight from Boston” more than they did “we’re stretchy and comfortable for a long car trip.” Then the saloon doors swung again and her daughter came in behind her, and the eyes shifted away.
“Here!” A twenty-something blonde bounced up to them. She was wearing a green polo shirt embroidered with the Mustang Ridge logo on one side and her name—Tipper—on the other. She looked momentarily confused by Lizzie, but then shrugged and thrust two
HOWDY, MY NAME IS
! tags at them, along with a Sharpie. “You guys will want these!”
“But we’re not—” Shelby began, but then broke off because Tipper was already bopping over to her next tagless victim, a curvy thirty-something brunette with an elfin haircut. Shrugging, Shelby offered Lizzie the stickers. “You want to fill them out for us? No? Okay, I’ll do it.” She wrote
on one and
on the other, and stuck them in place. “That should take care of it, but stay close to me.” Which was a given.
“Hello, ladies,” said a voice from behind them, making Shelby do a turn-and-tuck so she was in front of Lizzie.
The guy gained points by holding a soda rather than a beer, but lost them by having added another exclamation point to his name so the tag on his purple rodeo shirt read
HOWDY, MY NAME IS BRAD!!
Having gotten her attention, he leaned in too close to say, “I’ve got a confession to make—it’s my first time. How about you?” An eyebrow wiggle lost him another point.
Not that Shelby was interested enough to add up the pluses and minuses, but keeping score was an occupational hazard, as was the propensity to turn everything into a slogan.
Tired of being single? Try our new and improved Brad!! He comes complete with a one-bedroom condo, convertible, and new caps. Ex-wife sold separately
She gave him a half-watt smile. “I’ve never been to a dude ranch before, if that’s what you’re asking. And I’m not really—”
“Everyone?” an amplified voice broke in. “If I could have your attention?” A pretty, late-twenties blonde climbed up on a low stage beneath the banner. She was wearing figure-hugging jeans and worn boots, and holding a wireless microphone that fuzzed out her voice a little. When the hubbub died down, she caroled, “Welcome to Mustang Ridge! We’ve got an incredible week of riding, roping, and mingling planned for you. First, though, I’d like to start by telling you a little bit about the ranch and how we do things out here in the great state of Wyoming. So please have a seat, any place where there’s a booklet, and we’ll get started!”
Shelby waited until the others had filtered to their seats, jockeying for primo positions next to their first-choice singles. Then she nodded to an empty table. “Let’s sit near the back.” Lizzie hesitated and shot a long look out the door, making Shelby grin. “Sorry, kiddo, orientation first. But as soon as we’re done in here, I’ll take you out to the barn.”
It was why they were there, after all.
• • •
“Why, hello, aren’t you a big one?” a woman’s voice purred through the barn. “Then again, I heard that everything’s bigger up here in Wyoming.”
Foster finished squirting antibiotics into Loco’s cracked heel and looked up to find a blonde standing just inside the double doors, with generous curves stacked inside brand-new Wranglers and a snap-studded pink shirt that looked like the top fastener could go at any moment, and might take out an eye when it did. He stifled a sigh—
play nice with the guests, you’re part of the local flavor
—and said, “No, ma’am. I believe that’s Texas.”
He wasn’t all that big, either—maybe six feet, one ninety. Nowhere near as massive as his assistant wrangler, Ty, who always looked like something straight out of the pro rodeo tour in fringed chaps, flat-screen-size belt buckle, felt Stetson, and gleaming ostrich boots. Foster, on the other hand, wore his usual “it’s my day off” clothes: a battered black felt Stetson, plain T-shirt, faded jeans, and scarred ropers. As local flavor went, he wasn’t much. But Ty wasn’t there, Foster was, and the blonde was looking to bag a cowboy in her first five minutes off the airport shuttle.
She sidled in, skirted a pile of manure like it was a diamondback, and sashayed over to lean against the wall beside him. Which just went to show that she had zero horse sense, because that put her right in the line of fire if Loco leaped sideways or swung a kick.
Granted, Loco was anything but loco. But still.
She leaned in too close, giving Foster a good look at the local topography—a pair of nicely rounded breasts inside pink lace that would itch like crazy once she was out riding, with all the sweat and dust, and the bouncing around that beginners were prone to. Not that she would take any of the advice she’d be given over the next couple of days about wearing comfortable, low-chafe underclothes as they geared up for longer trail rides. No, she would wear lace top and bottom, and then complain. He’d bet money on it.
“What are you doing?” she asked prettily. “Is he hurt?”
He let Loco’s hoof down and shifted the gelding away from her. “It’s more preventative maintenance.”
“Like a lube job?”
. “You’re going to miss orientation.”
“How about you give me a private tour?”
Not even with someone else’s privates
. “Sorry, ma’am. Ranch policy.” Not really, but it was a handy excuse.
Her eyes picked up a gleam. “I wouldn’t tell.”
“Go on, now, and join the party.”
She pouted, but then blew him a kiss and flounced away, ruining her exit—or improving it, depending—by stepping squarely in the manure. She skidded and squeaked, but kept up her sexy wiggle all the way out of the barn.
Moments later, Foster heard a muttered curse and some scuffing noises outside, as she scraped her boots.
Chuckling, he moved around to Loco’s other side, ran a hand down the mustang’s shoulder, and touched the back of his fetlock. “How’s this shoe doing? Sounded to me like it might be coming loose.”
And that wasn’t the only thing, from the looks of it.
• • •
After the herd in the dining hall had settled down to more or less pay attention, the blonde with the microphone announced: “My name is Krista Skye, and I’m one of the owners of Mustang Ridge.”
Shelby stifled the urge to give her a resounding “Hi, Krista!” and opened the booklet in front of her.
The cover was emblazoned with the Mustang Ridge Dude Ranch logo, and the inner flap bore a glossy photo that she would’ve thought was Photoshopped if she hadn’t seen the view on the drive in. The cloud-studded Wyoming sky was straight out of the
opening credits, the horizon was the poster child for “America the Beautiful”’s purple mountain majesty, sweeping fields ran along the ridgeline, and the ranch itself was nestled in a gentle valley beside a Crayola blue lake.
It was ridiculously gorgeous, assuming you liked the middle of nowhere.
“We’re not going to go over everything in the book,” Krista said, earning a few cheers from the hopped-up crowd. “Inside it you’ll find daily schedules of our main events, along with alternatives if you need a day out of the saddle. The schedules and any updates will be posted here in the dining hall and out by the barn, so the main thing I’d like to go over right now is the rules of the ranch. We try not to go overboard, but you’re in the Wild West, folks, and you’re going to be dealing with livestock.”
A big guy in the front row lifted a longneck in toast. “To fillies and studs!”
That got a sprinkle of laughter and a couple of eye rolls.
Krista grinned but stayed on task. “You’ve already read and signed the waivers, so you’ve got some idea of what I mean. We’ll go over more safety precautions when we get to the actual riding part of things. For now, I’d appreciate it if you’d all look at page two and read along with me.” Point by point, she went down a list of ten dos and don’ts that were mostly common sense, translated into dude-speak.
Don’t kick dirt on the cook fire (pick up after yourself).
Don’t take seconds until everyone’s dished up their firsts (be courteous).
Leave every gate the way you found it (don’t mess with the livestock).
Walk the first mile out and the last mile in (treat your horse well and he’ll return the favor).
See to your horse before yourself (ditto).
When passing a cowboy, never turn and watch him ride away (trust your wranglers).
There’s only one trail boss (follow orders).
When in doubt, tighten your cinch (always triple-check your equipment).
There’s no such thing as a stupid question (never be afraid to ask a staff member).
And finally . . . cowboy up and have fun!
Giving Krista points for the presentation, Shelby tapped the page in front of her daughter and said in an undertone, “Read this. Know it. Love it. And I’m going to add number eleven: Don’t go near the horses without a grown-up.”
Ever since they had firmed up their plans to head west, Lizzie had been poring over her
books until they were puffed up and practically disintegrating, and their Netflix account had given
My Friend Flicka
a good workout. But that didn’t mean she knew what she was doing. Exactly the opposite, in fact, as she hadn’t wanted to take lessons at a local riding school before coming out here.
“Basically,” Krista continued, “we’re asking you to follow the Cowboy Code by respecting your stock, your spread, your tack, and your fellow hands. In return, we’ll feed you the best ranch grub you’ll ever eat, bar none, and we’ll teach you how to ride, rope, cut cattle, and square-dance. And because this is singles week, we’ll also have a whole bunch of special getting-to-know-you events.”
There was a shuffling in the crowd, and a stage whisper of “I’d like to get to know
better” from a woman in the front as she snuggled up next to Brad.
Shelby didn’t get it but, hey, to each her own.
Krista continued. “Here in Wyoming, we’re proud supporters of female empowerment. Since the eighteen fifties, Mustang Ridge Ranch has been bossed by Skye women four different times, seeing some of its most profitable decades and running thousands of cattle. These days the herds are smaller and our focus has shifted to giving you the best vacation of your lives, but the Skye ladies remain committed to this ranch and the people and animals on it.”
She gestured to a nearby hallway, and an older version of her emerged from the shadows and came up to stand on the podium, shooting them a Mona Lisa smile. With fine white hair curled under at her shoulders, wearing jeans and a blue mock turtleneck, she looked to be in her sixties, maybe a bit older. At the sight of her, Shelby sat up a little straighter.
“This is Gran,” Krista announced. “She and my grandfather, Big Skye, have been the heart of Mustang Ridge for more than half a century. She’ll be cooking us some amazing, stick-to-our-ribs ranch food this week, served family-style, the way it has been for generations. My parents are also integral to the ranch operations, but they’re off-property right now. As a proud member of the third generation of the current Skyes, I’m in charge of guest services, and I help with the riding. I’ll be hanging out with you guys and making sure you have a fabulous week. Tipper here”—Krista indicated the girl with the “Howdy” stickers—“and her brother, Topper, will be your servers. Mary is our head of housekeeping and Joseph is our head groundskeeper. But if you have any problems with your cabins or whatnot, please don’t hesitate to come find me, or leave me a message on the house phone.” She paused, then grinned. “Okay, now for the good stuff . . . The riding is managed by our trail boss, Foster, along with his wranglers, Stace, Ty, and Junior. They’re some of the best cowboys in the territory, and they’re going to put you through paces you didn’t even know you had.”