Don't miss this special three-book collection from USA Today bestselling author Carolyn Brown!
Release date: January 5, 2021
Print pages: 1376
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Longhorn Canyon Box Set Books 1-3
Retta felt as if she was entering forbidden territory when she rapped on the door frame and glanced up at a carved wooden sign above the door that said BOYS.
“Come on in.” It was the same deep voice she’d heard when she called to ask about the job and then again when she Skyped with Cade Maguire.
She took a deep breath and opened the door. He was sitting on the sofa staring at a laptop on the coffee table in front of him. Without looking up, he raised his hand and motioned to her.
She quickly crossed the room and held out her hand. “I’m Retta Palmer. I’m a few minutes early for our appointment.”
He stood up, towering above her five feet eight inches, and flashed a smile as he shook her hand. “Cade Maguire.”
She’d figured that he’d be a cowboy—after all he owned a ranch—and from his picture, that he’d be close to her age. She had seen that he had dark hair, a sexy little cleft in his chin, but seeing the whole package in person was a totally different thing. There was no way that flat image had done justice to those mesmerizing blue eyes. Dammit! She’d always been a sucker for blue eyes.
He led the way from the middle of the floor to a small seating area. His wide back and biceps stretched the knit of his blue shirt. Her gaze drifted down the taper toward his waist and on farther to his butt. Those worn jeans looked made for him. He turned around and nodded toward a comfortable chair on the other side of the coffee table in front of the sofa.
She sat down and crossed one leg over the other. She should have dressed more professionally, but all of her business clothes were at least two sizes too big these days, leaving her with casual outfits.
But I could have at least worn a skirt instead of boots and jeans, she fussed at herself silently. I’m probably making a horrible impression.
“It’s goin’ to be a hot day. The weatherman is calling for high nineties,” he said.
“That’s summer in Texas.” Always make a little small talk to put the person being interviewed at ease before the real questions start. She’d used that tactic before, so she wasn’t surprised.
“So you drove down from Oklahoma?” He checked the laptop on the coffee table between them. “Waurika, right?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Maguire.”
“Cade.” He chuckled. “No one even calls my father Mr. Maguire.”
“Then Cade it is,” she said with a smile, trying not to be distracted by his gorgeous blue eyes.
“Okay, Retta, I told you when we spoke previously about our summer program, what the job entails and a little about the ranch, so now I’d like to know more about you.”
“Sure. Fire away.”
His eyes went back to the laptop. “You’ve got a degree in business and worked for a bank until three years ago and then there’s nothing listed.”
“My father took sick, so I went home to help out.” This wasn’t her first rodeo at being interviewed or the one asking the questions either.
Don’t talk too much. Answer his questions completely and honestly, but don’t give away your whole life story. He’s only interested in the job he’s hiring you for, not anything personal. That’s the motivational speech she gave when the company sent her out to talk to college graduates looking for jobs in the banking business.
“Did he recover?” Cade asked.
“No, he lost the battle with cancer three months ago.”
Again, his eyes locked with hers and there was that flutter again. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. It took a while for me to get things settled. The ranch auction was held last week and the new owners are eager to get into the house.” She focused on that little tuft of dark chest hair showing at the top of his pearl snap shirt.
“And why do you want this job?” he asked.
“I’d love to have the opportunity to help children and I’m impressed with what you do here on the ranch for them. I’m not new to the idea of teaching leadership, since I’ve worked with people in that capacity in my previous jobs. The timing is perfect, since I only need something until midsummer.”
“You’ve worked with adults. Ever had a bit of experience actually working with kids? Liking them and working with them are two different things. These are ten- to twelve-year-old girls from the inner city who are tough as nails. What makes you think you can control them?” He kept his eyes on the computer.
“I like kids, and a little love goes a long way with tough kids. I was a Sunday school teacher for girls in that same age range in the church my dad and I attended. Not all of those girls came from perfect homes or had sweet little temperaments. I helped with the Bible school programs all three summers while I was there. I’ve served as counselor, supervisor, and sponsor for two trips to summer church camp, and twice my girls and I went to southeastern Oklahoma for short missionary trips,” she answered. “So I’d say I’ve worked with kids a few times.”
“So what did you do on those trips?” He looked up and their eyes caught in the middle of the distance separating them.
“On the first one we painted an elderly couple’s house for them. Second time we worked on a small farm, picking vegetables and fruit and selling them in a roadside fruit stand. It taught my girls to work and to help others,” she answered, amazed that her voice sounded completely normal with those blue eyes boring into hers.
“Tell me about this ranch you sold?” he asked.
“It was small, only about two hundred acres. I was born in Waurika and lived on the place until I went to college and then came back to it to help when my dad was diagnosed. We couldn’t afford to hire help so I did it all with Dad until he couldn’t do it anymore, and then I did it by myself,” she answered.
“Why didn’t you stay there?” He blinked and looked down at the computer.
“The medical bills had to be paid,” she answered honestly.
“Again, I’m sorry. Will you miss living there?”
“At times, I’m sure I will, but what I’ll miss most is the memories.” She shrugged and took a deep breath. “How many little girls will I be in charge of if you hire me?”
She waited a full thirty seconds to see if he’d ask another question before she responded. “I’m sure there will be lots of giggling and whining, and I can expect it to lean more toward whining. Like I said, I’ve dealt with girls that age so I know what I’m signing up for, Mr. Maguire. Any more questions?”
“No, but I will be honest. I ran the references you listed,” he said. “And your previous employers said that you’d be excellent in this position.”
“So am I hired?” She shot another smile his way but avoided his eyes. If she got the job she had to remember to look at the cleft in his chin, or his ears or even his mouth but to never fall into those cool blue eyes again. On second thought, though, his mouth would be dangerous too. His lips were meant for kissing.
“Let me show you the bunkhouse and if you’re still interested we’ll talk salary.” He stood, crossed the floor in a few long swaggering strides, and held the door open for her. “It’s only a few yards from here so we’ll walk.”
“I saw it as I drove down here from the ranch house. Stopped to ask exactly where to go and met a sweet lady named Mavis.” She passed close enough to him to get a whiff of the remnants of his shaving lotion. Without thinking, she drew a long breath and let it out slowly. Yep, the scent was woodsy and clean, reminding her of the fresh smell of morning when the dew was still on the ground.
It’s been way too long since you went out with a guy, her best friend Tina’s voice popped into her head.
“Amen,” she muttered.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Cade nodded toward the next building down from the boys’ bunkhouse. He shortened his step to keep up with her but it still only took two minutes to go from one building to the next.
“Just muttering to myself,” she said. “One of my failings.”
He stepped up on the porch and opened the door for her. She scanned the large room. No television but there was a bookcase full of age-appropriate books.
“We have television in the ranch house and they can watch movies there, but we encourage them to spend time outside in the fresh air or reading books. We want this to be a learning experience.”
“Teach them to like the smell of dirt and hard work. Sittin’ in front of a television all day doesn’t do anything but waste time,” she said softly. “That’s something that my daddy said all the time.”
“Sounds like he was a very smart man. This is the living room and the little kitchen will be for you and the girls to prepare snacks.”
“Does that mean I’m hired?” she asked.
“The job is yours if you want it. The kids arrive in three days. The quicker you can move in, the better, so you can get acquainted with the place and all of us before the children get here,” he answered.
“I can be back by midafternoon.” It might seem a little eager but she really wanted this job. It offered room and board and was tailor made for her for the next few weeks when interviews for her old job at Arlington Bank started. And besides that, the timing was perfect. She’d been vice president of the Arlington Bank and the next step on the ladder would have been president of a branch bank, but then her father took sick and she’d had to resign. If she was rehired, she’d step right back into the job without having to start at the bottom and work her way up again.
“Great!” He stuck out his hand.
She shook with him and attributed the sparks to her excitement about landing the job.
“Let’s do a quick walk-through of the rest of the place,” he said.
“I can understand the Longhorn of Longhorn Canyon Ranch, but I don’t see a canyon anywhere,” Retta said as she followed him across the space to the first bedroom.
“My great-grandparents built this place from scratch and we’ve always had Longhorn cattle on it that we use for rodeo stock, but we raise Angus cattle. My great-grandmother lived on the edge of Canyon Creek, so they combined the two when they needed a brand. I’m a diehard Texas Longhorn fan so I love the ranch’s name.”
“I won’t hold that against you,” she said seriously.
“OU?” He almost groaned.
“Boomer Sooner!” she answered with a smile. “And this year we’ll whip your butts.”
“Want to make a bet on it?”
“Bettin’ with the boss isn’t a good idea. Besides, I’ll be long gone by the second week in October.”
“Hey, now! I don’t want you to feel like I’m the boss. We work as a team when the kids arrive.”
“Well, then if I were here, I’d gladly take your money.”
“Dream on. Texas is goin’ to whip Oklahoma’s butt this year.” He motioned into the room. “Each girl has her own room. All exactly alike so no one is special.”
“That’s a smart idea,” she said, taking in the space. “Did you go to UT at Austin?” she asked as she followed him to the fifth door.
“Played for them. Helped bring home the Gold Hat in ’09.”
“And helped them give it back to Oklahoma in ’10,” she said.
“Ouch!” He grinned. “You know your football. Why would you live in Texas if you are an OU fan?”
“I went where the job took me,” she said. “But evidently, I’m as diehard Sooner as you are Longhorn.”
“I doubt it.” He chuckled. “Don’t tell me you’re against the Dallas Cowboys too?”
“No, sir. I love them, but I’ll always be a Sooners fan.”
“Live in Texas long enough and you might change your mind,” he told her.
“Honey, you’ll be old and gray before there’s even a possibility of that happening.”
The slight cleft in his chin deepened when he smiled. “Kind of sassy, aren’t you?”
“Been accused of it a few times,” she answered.
“It’ll take all of what you got to control these kids. Here’s your quarters.” He threw open the final door and stood to the side.
She expected him to show her a room like the other four but she was wrong—again. A queen-size bed took up a very small portion of the big room. Nightstands on either side, a big ten-drawer dresser, sofa and wooden rocking chair, walk-in closet, and a private bathroom with an oversize tub.
“Wow!” she whispered.
“This is the original bunkhouse. When it was built, the foreman at that time was about six and a half feet tall. He asked for a tub big enough for him to soak away the aches of the day. When we threw up walls and made this into a retreat type of bunkhouse, we left the tub. The boys’ place doesn’t have a tub, but it does have two shower stalls. It was built when the ranch outgrew this one. Nowadays the hired hands live in the surrounding towns and commute into work every day.”
If he’d shown her the tub first thing, she would have already been in her old truck and driving back across the Red River to get her things. She envisioned bubbles and bath salts and reading a thick book every single evening that she was there.
“You haven’t asked about a salary.” He leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb and quoted a figure higher than she’d expected. “And in addition to that, you get room and board, which includes three meals in the big house.”
The money was excellent. Benefits fabulous. And she got to work as a team. There were no cons—only pros.
“That sounds more than fair,” she said.
“Contract is on the computer. I’ll make a couple of adjustments and if you’ve seen enough we’ll go back down to the boys’ place and get it signed.” He crossed the floor and held the door open for her.
If something sounded too good, then there had to be something wrong somewhere, right? Thinking about it overnight wouldn’t hurt, but if she didn’t take it now, then he might change his mind about her commitment and bring in one of the other candidates. “Why did you wait so late to hire someone?” She fell into step with him going from one bunkhouse to the next.
“The same lady who’s always taken care of the girls had to back out last week. Her daughter had triplets and she had to go to Virginia to help out,” he said.
Once inside, he went straight to the computer, hit a few keys, and then whipped the screen around to her. She read through the one-page contract. Payment upon completion of the program and would be forfeited if she left before the last day. Any accidents happening during the program would be covered by the ranch insurance. Pretty basic stuff really. She hit the sign here key and it was done.
“That does it. I’ll print out a copy for you and give it to you when you return. Call me when you get back and I’ll send some hired hands to help you unload.” He rattled off a phone number and she plugged it into her phone.
He walked out with her and frowned at her truck. It had probably been bright red at one time, but it definitely showed signs of being left out in the weather instead of in a garage.
Her dark brows drew down over brown eyes. “What? Are you regretting hiring me already?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Your expression said you were having second thoughts,” she answered. “I would love to have this job but if you’ve changed your mind…” She didn’t finish the sentence.
“You are pretty good at reading people. I’m surely not having second thoughts. I wasn’t expecting you to be driving a truck. With a résumé like yours I expected something different.”
“I told you that I’ve been a rancher for three years,” she said as she slung open the door and crawled inside the old truck. “What did you think I’d be driving?”
“Maybe a sports car,” he answered.
“My cute little yellow Camaro went the same way as the farm—to pay off my father’s medical bills, but I’m debt free and this old girl has a lot of miles left in her.” Retta patted the steering wheel.
Cade held up his palms. “Hey, I like trucks. I drive one, and if you’ll look up toward the house, you’ll see three parked out front.”
“Saw them when I drove in. They’re nice.” She fastened the seat belt and started the engine.
“Sounds like a new vehicle,” he said.
“I keep her in good runnin’ order. See you in a few hours,” she said as she drove away.
With his long strides it only took a few minutes to get to the big house located about a hundred yards away. He circled around and went in through the back door, kicked off his good boots, and shoved his feet down into a pair of scuffed-up work boots and then headed to the refrigerator for a quart jar of sweet tea to take to the field for his brother, Justin.
“Did you hire her?” Mavis took a blackberry cobbler from the stove.
A short woman with kinky curly hair that went from brown to blond, depending on how long it had been since her last visit to the beauty parlor, Mavis had bright green eyes and loved gossip.
“I did,” Cade answered. “And she’ll be joining us for supper tonight.”
Mavis lowered her chin and narrowed her eyes. “Not that I’m one to meddle, but—you better be careful, Cade Maguire. Those big brown eyes get you every time.”
Mavis had been the cook at the ranch since before Cade and Justin were born and even though she was near seventy, she swore they’d take her out of the kitchen feet first. Her husband, Skip, had already retired as ranch foreman, but Mavis said there was no way she was staying home with him twenty-four/seven.
“Don’t be fussin’ at him, woman.” Skip came through the kitchen. “He’s a grown man and knows not to mix business and pleasure. If he’s hired her, then he ain’t goin’ to get all involved with her.”
Skip was talk and lanky and favored bibbed overalls. His gray hair had been nothing but a rim around his bald head ever since Cade had known him. He might look like a gentle breeze could blow him away, but he was as strong as an ox and could do the work of three men on the ranch.
“He’s a man and she’s a woman. Business ain’t got a thing to do with what happens between two people when they…” She stopped.
“What happens? Tell me,” Cade teased.
Skip chuckled. “I’m listenin’ and since we’re both just men and don’t understand anything, we’d like some details.”
Mavis pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and narrowed her eyes. “Y’all ain’t crazy. You both know what I’m talkin’ about. Now, Cade, you take that tea to Justin and y’all get yourselves on back here by noon. And Skip Roberts, you get on back down to the boys’ bunkhouse and fix that water leak.”
“Better listen to her. She’s the one doin’ the cookin’.” Skip bent to kiss her on the forehead.
“Yes, ma’am.” Cade grinned.
“And if you can’t be careful, then be sure you got some protection in your hip pocket.” Skip chuckled again.
“I swear to God, you embarrass me every time you turn around,” Mavis snapped at her husband and then turned back to Cade. “Boy, you watch that heart of yours. It’s got a thing for brown eyes.”
“Not a single thing for you to worry about, Miz Mavis.” He stopped and bent down to hug her.
“Okay then, I’ll set another plate for supper. I hope she likes pot roast,” Mavis said.
“Me too, but she’s a devout OU fan, so one never knows,” Cade said in mock seriousness.
“Sweet Jesus.” Skip crossed himself. “An Oklahoma fan in this house. God might shoot lightning right through the roof and zap us all.”
Mavis shoved a finger up under his nose and started to say something, but Cade grabbed it and twirled her around in a swing dance movement. “You don’t worry about me. I would never get involved with someone who’s a Sooner fan.”
“You rascal, you’ve messed up my hair.” She patted at her short hair.
“You still got spring in your step. You and Skip should go with me and the boys out dancing some Saturday night,” he said.
“Did that woman’s brown eyes make you crazy? I’m too old for shenanigans like that. Lord have mercy! I’ll be seventy in the fall.”
“Don’t you lie to me. You’re not a day over fifty, and Skip can still two-step. I saw y’all at the last weddin’ we went to. Put us young folks plumb to shame.” He gave her another quick hug and headed out the back door.
“You are full of horse crap and you’re forgetting your tea,” Mavis yelled.
He came back, picked up the jar, and blew a kiss toward them on his way out that time.
But his step slowed as he thought about Mavis’s warning. She wouldn’t say Julie’s name, but that’s clearly who she meant. On the night before their wedding, he’d blown Julie a kiss when he walked off her porch at ten minutes until midnight. And the next morning she’d sent the engagement ring back with a note saying that she couldn’t go through with it. Folks said that time would heal his shattered heart, but it had already been two years and he still felt the ache.
He got into the old work truck that didn’t look a bit better than Retta’s. He set the tea on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat and shifted into low gear. He turned on the radio to take his mind somewhere else but that didn’t help when “Deja Vu” started playing. Like Lauren Duski sang about, there were weeks when he didn’t even think of Julie—and then it would all come back in a flash, especially when he saw a woman with beautiful brown eyes—like Retta’s.
He parked the truck and picked up the quart of tea. A trail of dust floated out behind the green tractor coming toward him. The smell of freshly plowed dirt and hot sun rays beating down from a cloudless sky—this all came at the price of his heart, but he’d do it again without a doubt or regrets.
The tractor came to a stop a few feet in front of the truck and Justin hopped out of it. “I hope that tea is for me. I’m spittin’ dust. Did you hire the woman?”
Cade held out the jar. “I figured you’d be ready for something to drink. And yes, I hired her. Her résumé says she’s a city girl but she was wearing boots and jeans.”
“Thanks. What’s she look like?” Justin took the tea and had a long drink.
“Tall. Not skinny but curvy. Dark brown hair but I noticed some red in it when she was in the sun. Big brown eyes,” Cade answered.
“Like Julie brown eyes?” Justin handed the jar back to Cade.
“Not the same,” Cade answered. “Retta’s are lighter, the color of a Yoo-hoo.”
“Brown all the same.” Justin slapped a hand on his shoulder. “Be careful, brother.”
“She’s an employee, for God’s sake,” Cade snapped. “Five weeks and she’s gone. She’s not Julie or anything like her.”
Justin’s shoulders shot up in a shrug. “Hey, I didn’t mean to step on sore toes. I’m just sayin’ to be careful. Tall, curvy, brown eyes. Hell, you’d have to be half dead not to flirt with that.”
“I don’t flirt,” Cade said.
Justin laughed out loud. “Yeah, and the sun will come up in the west tomorrow mornin’. We are both Maguires. We flirt. It’s in our DNA. You can have the tractor now. My butt was beginning to feel like it was grown to the seat. I’m going to go help Levi fix fence the rest of the day so I can stand up.”
“I’ll gladly plow a field or even string barbed wire not to have to listen to everyone on the ranch givin’ me advice. You want to show Retta around the ranch tomorrow?” Cade removed his hat and used it for a fan.
“Nope. I’m working with Levi for the next three days. We want to get as much of the pasture roped off as we can. It’s up to you—but since you don’t flirt, we won’t need to give you any advice.”
Cade frowned. “Mavis has already been on my case. I don’t need your smart-ass remarks.”
Justin removed his hat and raked his fingers through his hair. His dimples deepened when he grinned. “We’re just all lookin’ after you. It’s taken two long years for you to get over Julie, and you still go for the brown-eyed beauties when we go dancin’ on the weekends. This isn’t a one-night stand or even a weekend romp. She’s goin’ to be here for five long weeks.”
“Holy hell, Justin! I just met the woman and hired her. I’m not going to sleep with her.”
“Well, I hope not.” Justin laughed. “See you at supper. Here, you take the rest of this tea. Mad as you are, you might need it to cool you down.”
“Dammit!” he muttered as he got into the tractor cab and fired up the engine.
He’d barely gotten the tractor turned around when his bluetick hound, Beau, ran up beside him and barked loudly several times. He braked and slung open the door, and the dog scrambled up across him and took his place in the passenger’s seat.
“Needin’ a little air-conditioning are you? Let me tell you about this woman who’s goin’ to be with us on the ranch for the next five weeks. I think you’ll like her, Beau, old buddy.” He reached across and scratched the dog’s ears with his free hand. “But don’t get too attached. She’s a city gal and she won’t be stayin’ with us.”
Retta had lived in two places her entire life—the farmhouse and the fifth-floor apartment that she rented in Dallas when she landed the job with Arlington Bank. Standing in the middle of the living room floor after she’d put her things in the truck bed, she didn’t even try to hold back the tears. Slowly she’d walked through the whole house—the bedroom where she’d gone from a baby to a little girl to a teenager, where she’d leaned out the window and kissed her first boyfriend. The dining room where the family had always, always had supper together and discussed the day—and where she’d probably snapped a thousand bushels of green beans while she and her mother talked about everything. The master bedroom where her father had died surrounded by his memories of their family. And now the living room, which had been filled with laughter and love.
“It’s time to move on,” she whispered. “You told me to do this, Daddy, but you didn’t tell me it would be so painful.”
She wiped tears all the way to Nocona and with a deep breath told herself that life was going to go on and she had to move with it. She stopped at the Dairy Queen for an ice-cream cone, but a mile down the road she still couldn’t swallow past the lump in her throat so she tossed it out the window.
She had turned off the highway onto a farm road when she realized that someone was behind her. They stayed with her when she drove under the big wooden sign above the cattle guard proclaiming that from there on they were on Longhorn Canyon Ranch. When she parked in front of the bunkhouse, the other truck pulled in right beside her.
“Dammit!” she muttered. “My eyes are a mess and I’m not ready to talk to anyone.”
Cade swung his long legs out of the truck and waved. “I’ll help you get unloaded.”
“Thanks, but I can take care of it,” she told him.
He peered into the bed of the truck and asked, “Is this all? I thought you might be returning with a cattle trailer full of stuff. I was going to offer some empty space in the barn to store your things.”
“Like I said, the medical bills are paid.” She shrugged.
He hoisted two boxes onto his shoulders.
Now that’s one strong cowboy. The voice in her head was Tina’s.
She couldn’t argue. The boxes that he carried were the ones that had taken all her strength to get up into the bed of the truck. She hurried ahead of him, set a couple of suitcases on the porch, and held the door for him. “Just put them in my room and I’ll take care of getting the rest of it inside.”
“I might be a grown man, but my mama would tack my hide to the smokehouse door if I let a lady carry stuff. I’m already in hot water with her if she finds out that you opened the door for me.” He grinned.
“Does she live on the ranch too?”
“No, ma’am. She and Dad moved out around Sweetwater three years ago, but they come home for Christmas and the whole family always meets in Dallas for the Texas-Oklahoma game every year.” He set the boxes in the corner of the living area.
“I’ve missed the last three games. Watched them on television, but it wasn’t the same. Oklahoma is good enough to whip Texas’s butt this year. I’ll be right there in the stands again to celebrate when we do.” She wheeled the suitcases into the bedroom.
“In your dreams.” He chuckled as he started back out for more boxes.
“Hey, now, this is serious business,” she called after him.
“Don’t I know it, and I’ll be on the winning side,” he yelled.
“And that, Mr. Maguire, is dreaming big,” she hollered.
“Dreams do come true,” he said as he made another trip inside. “What did you pack in these things, rocks?”
“Had to have something to remind me of the farm,” she shot back.
“Are you serious?” He wiped sweat from his forehead.
“No, but if I’d thought of it, I would have gone down to the creek and gathered a few to keep as memories,” she answered.
After another trip, he removed his hat and fanned with it. “We have supper at six o’clock. I’ll be here about five-thirty to take you up to the house.”
“You don’t need to do that,” she said. “I can find my way.”
“Not saying you couldn’t. I just wanted to be gentlemanly.” He settled the well-worn straw hat on his head and then tipped it toward her. “See you there between five-thirty and six. The boys and I like a good cold beer before supper, but we can make you a drink if you want somet
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